published North&South, June 2002
Take one frustrated medical researcher, one Marlborough crop and seed grower, heaps of innovative enthusiasm and what do you get? Gleaming bottles of sprightly, unadulterated gourmet oils which might be good for you as well.
Glenn Vile is the frustrated researcher. His last five minutes of fame came in a NZ Listener article in 1998 entitled ‘No Future for Research’ about New Zealand’s lack of funding for medical research. Armed with a PhD, Vile had been at the Christchurch School of Medicine for 11 years with an additional three years postdoctoral research in Switzerland studying ultra violet radiation and how it causes skin cancer. His research also included the way oils become rancid when oxidised by the sun (similar to the way the sun damages the fats and lipids in our skin cells).
“I was on really short term grants and spending about a third of each year looking for funding which covered my salary and basic equipment. But I was looking for some sort of career structure and commitment from the Health Research Council. The final straw was when I put in a really good application and it came just below the cut off line. A salary was scratched together for me but the writing was on the wall and the Government was focused on a dollar return for their investment.”
So Glenn and wife Alison decided they would head home to the golden summers of Marlborough where a 12 year old Glenn had driven tractors for crop and seed grower Garth Neal. Alison works locally as an accountant and Glenn looks after their three children while developing Bay Oils.
Neal had exported up to 70 tons of seeds per year to the US snack market for 10 years but was eventually undercut by Russian suppliers, so Vile and Neal put their heads together and had the idea of making pumpkin seed oil.
“For centuries traditional roasted pumpkin seed oil has been used in Austria and Hungary. They have a low incidence of prostate problems and results from a large German clinical trial published in 2000 show the oil has a significant effect on prostate enlargement. There are three important sterols in significantly high levels in pumpkin seed oil which mimic testosterone and prevent enlargement of the prostate which happens with aging.”
Roasted pumpkin seed oil is green and unctuous but tastes rich and nutty and drizzled over food is an enjoyable way of benefiting prostate health. Vile has sold 5.5 litres of unroasted pumpkin seed oil (more concentrated sterols in the unroasted seed) to a Japanese pharmaceutical company who were looking for an oil free of PCBs and DDT to be incorporated into capsules for ‘an old fellas’ remedy’.
Last year he pressed 300 kilos of seed and produced 50 litres of gourmet oil which was sold nationally through a handful of upmarket outlets. “I reckon the pumpkin seed oil will be a bit of a goer – it’s a wonderful gourmet product and has more antioxidants than other oils- but I’m not envisaging huge presses and global markets. The small family business producing niche products was an important part of the fabric and economy of Switzerland and our aim is to provide our family with an income.”
Vile describes Neal as ‘fizzing at the bung’ about the possibilities of seed and nut oils and the irrepressible pair have dried seeds and made oil from a range of seeds: coriander (fragrant and intense: Nelson chefs fry scallops in it), mustard (richly golden with extremely low saturated fat content) and fennel (distilled aniseed flavour). “Garth was driving his harvester one day and noticed fennel growing down the side of the paddock, he hand harvested and separated two kilos of fennel seeds and we made 50 mls of oil – it’s fantastic.”
Before grapes, Marlborough was a big crop and seed-producing region and Neal, a second generation grower, has watched as available land is gobbled up for vineyard development and his margins have become tighter and tighter. He is now growing coriander, mustard and flax seeds as well as developing varieties of naked-seed pumpkins for oils.
“The idea is to maintain Marlborough’s diversity. There is a real need to stop Marlborough becoming a monoculture for the environment as well as the economy. The only way we can do that is by offering the grower a good return. We need to add value to products and include as few people in the process as possible to give good returns to the farmer and affordable goods to the consumer.”
With this in mind, Bay Oils aims to establish mutually beneficial partnerships with growers such as Dave Null who has the largest hazelnut orchard in New Zealand (3000 trees) and Malcolm and Jenny Horwell who collect and crack walnuts from trees throughout the province. Last year’s pressings of these tasty nut oils sold out but the Viles were not tempted to import product from overseas. ” Part of our philosophy is to produce preservative free, freshly pressed, locally grown products with a relatively short shelf life throughout the year. These factors must benefit the biochemical analysis of the end product.”
With his finger still on the pulse of global medical research, Vile has become increasingly interested in the area of ‘nutriceuticals’ – food products eaten to benefit health. “The idea that you can change your lifestyle and diet to help prevent problems like heart disease and skin cancer is now well known, but was based in the test tube from the time I was doing my PhD. The bridge between research and people is the food product. This year we will be doing flax seed oil. Clinical research has shown it is a rich source of Omega 3 and recommended doses reduce your risk of stroke and heart disease.”
And does Vile have any regrets about leaving medical research? Glenn looks across the sandy paddock to the sparkling sea and the blue hazed hills. ” No, actually I feel quite elated.”