Scientists and hapū are investigating whether kina (a New Zealand sea urchin) can become our next high-value nutraceutical, functional food product. A nutraceutical is a food or part of a food that provides health benefits in addition to its nutritional value. For example, green-lipped mussel oil is used to promote joint movement and mobility.
Kina (Evechinus chloroticus) are part of the sea urchin family Echinometridae. These spiny sea creatures are endemic to New Zealand and are found in shallow waters around much of the country. Although kina flesh and roe (the reproductive organs or gonads) are valued locally, there is little demand for it globally.
Kina’s bioactive health properties
A team working in the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge think there is potential to export health-promoting kina bioactives. Their research is focused on using bioactives from kina shells for treating diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and other serious conditions.
There are three kina bioactives of interest:
- Pigment 1 – contains antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and chelating abilities.
- Pigment 2 – has anti-inflammatory properties and may alleviate diabetes and obesity.
- Bioactive oil – like many fish, kina contain omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit heart health and reduce arthritis, diabetes and asthma. However, kina oil is likely to have enhanced anti-inflammatory properties compared with standard fish oil.
The kina bioactives have been identified using a series of different assays. The team are developing methods to quantify the bioactives by solvent extraction (separating compounds based on their solubilities) and using liquid chromatography mass spectroscopy or gas chromatography mass spectroscopy.
A blend of experts
The project is led by Dr Matthew Miller, a technical consultant at the Cawthron Institute. Matt’s science team are experts in extracting marine bioactives. They are collaborating with Hikurangi Enterprises and hapū from Te Tairāwhiti (East Coast of New Zealand) to use mātauranga contained in oral histories and traditional practices as well as local knowledge of kina growth, distribution and harvesting.
A high-value product with reduced waste
Nutraceuticals are one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global food industry. New Zealand has a worldwide reputation for producing safe, sustainable high-quality food products. Research also shows that consumers are willing to pay top prices for products that are gentle on the environment.
The potential to develop high-value nutraceuticals and functional food ingredients from the marine environment would contribute to a blue economy – a sustainable use of ocean resources. By using the non-edible shell rather than the edible flesh, the team is examining how to reduce the amount of waste from harvested kina.
Almost all kina are wild harvested by divers who hold their breath (10% are caught by dredging in the Marlborough Sounds.) Diving causes minimal damage to the kina’s habitat, and there is no bycatch. Kina are an underutilised resource in Te Tairāwhiti region. In 2016, records show that only 25% of the total allowable commercial catch was harvested.
Huataukīna tō iwi e
The title of the project – Huataukīna tō iwi e – is a line from the waiata Hikurangi, composed by Kuini Moehau Reedy. It is based on an old Ngāti Porou phrase: When the kaimoana is abundant and the hapū have strings of kina, whānau are prosperous and healthy.
One of the research aims is to stimulate the blue economy in Te Tairāwhiti region.
The challenge is ongoing
This project is all about producing baseline knowledge. The teams have harvested kina during the different seasons and are now testing the various oil extracts. They have questions regarding location, seasonality and efficacy of the bioactives. In addition, the teams will need to explore how they can scale up the extractions to meet future commercial needs.
Nature of science
Nutraceuticals come from a wide range of food sources, from fruits and fish to spices. Understanding the roles they play in human health and the science behind their efficacy can be quite complex. Rigorous scientific research, like that carried out in this project, helps to inform and protect consumers.
Find out more about the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge.
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This article has been developed using resources from the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge.