Cawthron uncovering high-value nutrition in NZ’s kaimoana

Fiona Gower

Research lead and scientist, Dr Tom Wheeler, from Cawthron Institute’s Analytical Science Group. Photo: Cawthron Institute.

The High-Value Nutrition (HVN) National Science Challenge has announced funding for novel research to develop the innovation capacity of Māori food and beverage businesses. Cawthron Institute is leading the “He tipu moana he oranga tangata: Revealing karengo as a high-value functional food” programme in collaboration with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and Wakatū Incorporation, and will investigate the potential of a modern high-value industry based around karengo, a type of native edible seaweed.

Research lead and scientist, Dr Tom Wheeler from Cawthron Institute’s Analytical Science Group, is looking forward to learning more about the composition of this traditionally important kai and Māori dietary supplement, and says that he is excited by the opportunity this research represents for New Zealand.

“There are hundreds of varieties of native seaweeds growing wild along New Zealand’s coast, but little is known about their composition or bioactive potential,” says Dr Wheeler.

“This research will reveal the nutritional profile and potential health benefits of karengo, to help Māori enterprises identify the most promising karengo species for development into high-value extracts.

“Karengo is related to nori, a popular Japanese seaweed that’s high in protein with health-promoting antioxidant effects, so this sets some expectations around what nutritional treasure we might find through our analysis,” says Dr Wheeler.

Cawthron Institute Analytical Science will apply their compositional testing expertise to the samples provided and determine the species with the most promising health-promoting bioactivities for relieving chronic inflammatory conditions such as COPD, metabolic syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease.

“We are fortunate to be collaborating with Ngāi Tahu and Wakatū to learn more about this species and establish a new pathway for the development of our karengo. The historical approach for the development of industry in New Zealand has been to start with a low value commodity and over time realise its potential and seek to move up the value chain. This investigation is about identifying the opportunity for new high-end products that support human health from the get-go,” says Dr Wheeler.

HVN National Science Challenge Chief Scientist Professor Richard Mithen is pleased the research programme is going ahead.

“The High Value Nutrition National Science Challenge is delighted to support this most interesting and high-quality research programme led by the world-renowned Cawthron Institute in partnership with Te Rūnanga a o Ngāi Tahu and [the] Wakatū Incorporation.”

“Karengo is part of the exceedingly rich native flora of Aotearoa New Zealand. Harvesting karengo in a sustainable manner will lead to the development of new foods to benefit the health of the people of New Zealand and offer innovative export opportunities for business,” says Professor Mithen.

The two-year programme announced in mid-September is in line with Cawthron Institute’s ongoing commitment to world-leading algal research and utilising the expertise of its scientists in researching and extracting high-value bioactive compounds. Cawthron’s capability in this area will be further extended upon the completion of the state-of-the-art Cawthron Institute National Algae Research Centre due for construction next year.


Cawthron Institute is New Zealand's largest independent science organisation, offering a broad spectrum of services to help protect the environment and support sustainable development of primary industries. Based in Nelson, New Zealand, Cawthron works with regional councils, government departments, major industries, private companies, and other research organisations throughout New Zealand and around the world. Cawthron is a diverse organisation employing more than 250 scientists, laboratory technicians, researchers, and specialist staff from 26 countries.

Cawthron’s scientists have expertise in aquaculture research, marine and freshwater resource management, food safety and quality, algal technologies, biosecurity, and analytical testing. Its ground-breaking science is supported by substantial testing and research laboratories, state-of-the-art technology and a purpose-built aquaculture park. The Cawthron Aquaculture Park also houses a recently-opened Finfish Research Centre designed to deliver commercially-relevant science to enable improved stock management and husbandry and support the development and growth of the finfish aquaculture industry.

Cawthron’s future developments include its upcoming National Algae Research Centre which will enable Cawthron to expand its internationally-recognised work in the rapidly growing algae sector and create value for existing and future partners. Cawthron has more than 30 years of expertise in algae research, from microscopic level through to the impact of algae in our marine ecosystems, and is one of only a few organisations worldwide to specialise in extracting high-value bioactive compounds from algae. Construction of the Centre is scheduled to begin by October 2020.

Cawthron Institute:


The mission of the High-Value Nutrition (HVN) Challenge is to develop high-value foods with validated health benefits to drive economic growth. The Cawthron-led programme announced on 13 September is receiving funding from the HVN National Science Challenge Māori Food and Beverage Innovation Fund. This is part of wider HVN Tranche 2 funding. Tranche 2 of the HVN is about bringing new research ideas and teams into the Challenge that will leverage HVN Capabilities developed during Tranche 1 (2014 – 2019) to deliver excellent, high-impact science across four Priority Health Areas of Metabolic, Digestive, Immune, and Infant Health.

HVN website:

Date posted: 23 September 2019

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