Embracing our native bounty with super bush foods

23/05/2021

Hayley Blieden is the brains behind The Australian Superfood Co, a company on a mission to shift the focus of Australian food culture to the native ingredients that sustained Indigenous Australians for over 70,000 years. Hayley works with communities and growers to make native Australian ingredients more accessible and has been integral in introducing these foods to high-end restaurants and mainstream food and beverage manufacturers.

Recently, DC’s Kate Agnew was lucky enough to steal an hour of Hayley’s time to talk about her unique dietetic career path.

 

Tell us about your story as a dietitian and how The Australian Superfood Co was born?

I completed my dietetics degree at Monash Uni in Melbourne in 2009 and I loved the course… I loved my placements… but
it didn’t quite sit right with me that we were only treating sick people. The public health, sports and food angles were where I wanted to move. I completed the sport dietetics course and was offered a job as

a part time dietitian at North Melbourne Football Club. From there I worked as the general manager at Shotz Sports Nutrition and then I went on and started researching Australian native ingredients. I was interested in what’s sustained Indigenous Australians for over 70,000 years and was shocked that Australians (myself included) didn’t know about these foods.

“Why do we think that our food culture revolves around lamingtons and Vegemite? We have Kakadu Plum that has the highest vitamin C content of any food on Earth and Lemon Myrtle, which is an excellent vegan source of calcium. These are all foods that nature gave to us and they’re so super nutritious and delicious.”

 

Can you tell us about the work you do with Indigenous communities?

We work with Indigenous communities and local farmers throughout Australia. Our sourcing policy stipulates that all produce is first and foremost sourced from Indigenous suppliers. We source Kakadu Plum from Northern Territory and Western Australia; Wattleseed, Quandong and Muntries from South Australia; Mountain Pepper Leaf and Strawberry Gum from Victoria and Tasmania; Davidson Plum, Finger Lime and Lemon Myrtle from New South Wales and Queensland. There’s really a great spread.

When we launched, we wanted to source as many of these ingredients from Indigenous communities… but we found that most
of these ingredients weren’t linked to community anymore. Now we’re working with more and more Indigenous farmers that are purposely planting native crops.

Kakadu Plum, for example, is wild harvested by Indigenous communities. The women come to work to pick and they’re paid per kilo of fruit that they bring in – but for them to come to work, their kids have to be in school. There’s this whole follow-on effect within the community. Because they’re paid for the amount of fruit that they bring in, on the weekends the whole family goes out on country and it’s an educational piece between the elders and the youth of the community… I think more and more of the communities are trying to up-skill the community members so that they have a purpose.

 

Can you tell us the about the products you have at The Australian Superfood Co?

When we launched five years ago, we launched with a range of snack bars that incorporated Australian native ingredients. We thought we were on to something, as the interest from retailers and distributors was high. Unfortunately the sell through rate was really poor. We realised that the interest lay in the ingredients themselves.

We went back to the drawing board, spoke to our customers and gained an understanding of where the demand lay and what challenges our customers were facing. There was a demand for native produce from chefs, bartenders and food and beverage manufacturers. They had experimented with these ingredients in the past but had been unable to secure the produce due to lack of consistent supply and quality. We identified that in order to address this, we could perform minimal processing techniques, like freeze drying or liquid extraction, to preserve the produce when it is in season and guarantee our customers a premium, highly nutritious and delicious product all year round.

 

It sounds like there’s more research happening around these foods. Is that right?

People are identifying the health benefits of native produce and can see there are unique and exceptional nutrient and antioxidant profiles. After all, these foods have had to adapt to extreme weather conditions over tens of thousands of years. The government, universities and independent labs are performing ongoing research into the nutritional and medicinal properties of these foods. The potential impact on health and the utilisation of these ingredients as a natural preservative is astounding. Watch this space!

 

You have to tell us about your favourite bush foods, the ones you like to cook with or eat.

Native ingredients have so many wonderful benefits from flavour to nutrition. In terms of flavour, I love Mountain Pepperberry. For a cooking novice (like myself), it is the easiest way to include native ingredients into your daily cooking. Simply substitute traditional pepper for Mountain Pepperberry in your pepper grinder and you will experience a peppery, sweet flavour unlike anything you have ever tasted. My other favourite from a flavour perspective is Davidson Plum. If you have ever bitten into a fresh davo, you will never forget it. It looks like an ordinary blood plum, but is extremely sour. It balances out a delicious dessert or rich meat with it’s cut through acidity. Think chocolate brownie with Davidson Plum or duck with a Davidson Plum sauce.

From a nutritional perspective, it’s hard to go past Kakadu Plum. This fruit is almost exclusively wild harvested by Indigenous Australians and contains the highest known natural source of Vitamin C of any food. There is also evidence that Kakadu Plum extract can be used as a natural preservative, to extend the shelf-life of fresh prawns by up to 7 days!

 

In the early days, where you ever met with any resistance or challenges?

Our biggest challenge to date has been the educational piece. We are a small company, with limited resources, trying to educate a market on products they have never heard of. Since launching six years ago, the tide has definitely changed. Schools are educating students on native produce, products are appearing on supermarket shelves and chefs are increasingly incorporating native produce. Native produce ticks so many boxes. It is sourced locally using sustainable farming practices. It is nutritious and delicious. With these factors in mind and the link to Indigenous Australia, it is becoming easier to convince Australians to switch to native produce.

 

How do you think the industry will change over coming years?

We’re seeing native produce begin to scatter through the Majors. I think that more and more this is just going to become common food, which is fantastic. The limitation is going to be supply. We’re addressing that with a new business we started earlier this year called the Native Harvest Initiative which is focussed on increasing the supply chain.

There are three arms to the business:

  1. Indigenous communities wild harvesting produce;
  2. Working with farmers that are currently producing native produce to plant more produce, and;
  3. Working with farmers that are currently harvesting non-native produce to diversify or repurpose their crops to harvesting native produce.

We guarantee the farmers that we will purchase the produce at the end, so it mitigates their risk.

 

It sounds like The Australian Superfood Co is creating social impact. Is that right?

We definitely have a social impact focus! Since its launch in 2015, The Australian Superfood Co has had a policy of prioritising the sourcing of native produce from Indigenous Australians. We work with Indigenous communities to wild harvest produce, as well as with Indigenous farmers cultivating native fruits, herbs and seeds.

Our procurement programs have generated seasonal employment for over 1000 Indigenous Australians. The opportunity to earn income is highly valued, and a number of communities use its popularity to leverage better educational outcomes for children, such as only allowing adults to collect fruit if their school-age children are attending school.

An increase in demand for fruits, seeds and herbs creates opportunities in other ways too, such as packing, drying and freezing produce for southern markets. We’re hoping to add more employment opportunities as the demand for these ingredients grows.

The Australian Superfood Co is a proud partner of Red Dust Role Models. Red Dust Role Models is an Australian health and wellbeing organisation with a 20-year track record of partnerships in remote Australia. Their ‘community-as-family’ model of health programming is inspiring change by walking side-by-side with community leaders and Elders to create a stronger future for Indigenous youth and their families.

Red Dust Role Models’ Healthy Living Programs see the lives of Indigenous youth enriched through a series of community visits aimed at building relationships, while conveying vital health messages.

 

We recently saw that The Australian Superfood Co was on MasterChef. How was that experience for the business and for you?

It’s been amazing. MasterChef is incredible. I think that it’s changed the way Australians eat. If you think about the influence that TV and these chefs have over people and the fact that they’re embracing Australian native produce and saying that these ingredients should be used in all dishes, it’s exciting and I think it’s shown how the industry – and Australians – have evolved.

 

How can dietitians support The Australian Superfood Co?

I think that it’s really important for Australian dietitians to learn more about Australian native ingredients so that it becomes
natural to them to recommend Australian native ingredients to meet nutritional requirements of their patients. We talk about superfoods from around the world, but let’s talk about what grows locally in Australia. For instance, if you’re looking for a natural vitamin C source for adults or for children, you could sprinkle Kakadu Plum on cereal or put it in your smoothie. If you’re looking for an alternative protein source, you can look to Wattleseed, which is low GI, high protein, high fibre and a good source of iron and zinc. Lemon Myrtle, a vegan source of calcium that people can start to incorporate into their dishes to boost their products nutritionally, instead of looking for nutritionally dense foods from overseas.

This article first appeared in Infuse Magazine in May 2021.

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