Smoky flavours of the native Kānuka tantalise the taste buds in new business venture.

For Dr Kiri Dell the smell of kānuka brings back fond childhood memories of her ancestral lands in Tai Rāwhiti/East Coast. It’s a place where the kānuka (Kunzea ericoides) grows wild and the aroma of the trees gives off a homely fragrance.

Its hidden flavours have been discovered and captured by University of Auckland academics Dr Dell (Faculty of Business) and Associate Professor Saeid Baroutian (Chemical and Materials Engineering) who have set up a start-up, Nuka Limited. Together with whānau from Ruatōria, they have transformed the properties of the native kānuka tree into multiple products, some of which are flavoursome ingredients for food.

“I’m passionate about integrating the power of science and technology to realise the potential of our whenua and finding novel ways for our whenua to sustain Māori landowners,” says Dr Dell.

Dr Kiri Dell from Faculty of Business and Economics and Associate Professor Saeid Baroutian from Faculty of Engineering.

The process of transforming kānuka into liquid smoke is done through a fast pyrolysis, an intense heating process.

“Fast pyrolysis is a process in which kānuka wood chips are rapidly heated to 400 - 500 °C in the absence of air to be thermally decomposed into liquid smoke”, says Associate Professor Baroutian. 

“I designed a fast pyrolysis system based on a fluidised bed reactor and fractional condensation for maximum production yield, highest flavour profile quality and elimination of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs) known as carcinogenic to human.”

The result: a food flavouring ingredient that adds an instant hangi taste to your kai (food). As well as the pleasant taste and aroma it also acts as both an antioxidant and antimicrobial agent, helping to preserve and extend the shelf life of treated products.

It’s an ingredient that has caught the attention of ‘Plant Tech Nation’ (plant-based meat company) and ‘Fix and Fogg’ (nut-butter company) who have signed up to the first production run.

Alexandra Allan, chief executive of Food Bowl, says they’ve had a really great time working with Kiri and Saeid on this project.

“Our role has been to enable them to come to a food grade premises and utilise our environment to make a project and then also sell to their potential customers.”

The product is expected to scale up and begin development from Ruatōria by early October.

Media contact

Aroha Mane | Media adviser
M: 021 244 9707