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By Stephanie Lambert

Mark Christensen believes wholeheartedly in the power of heritage food crops to produce health – for the plants themselves, the soil they grow in and the people who eat them. It’s not simply nostalgia. He’s convinced that food-growing for profit has produced nutritionally inferior plant stock and he talks of ‘re-booting the gene pool back to before profit-based plant breeding became the norm’. Pre-1940s seems a fair rule of thumb.
In 2007 Christensen established the Heritage Food Crops Research Trust (HFCRT) in Whanganui where his role is director of research. Trust members collect, cultivate and preserve promising heritage plant stock; they monitor research on the medical benefits of plants; they commission and obtain funding for new scientific studies; and they grow the plant material to be tested.
During their first decade they gave away more than 10,000 grafted apple trees, as well as countless tetra-cis-lycopene-rich tomato plants and seeds to gardeners in order to establish food crops in Aotearoa New Zealand that will improve our population’s health.

Powerful natural health benefits
At HFCRT the research focus is on the micronutrients in our foods that target cancers, diabetes, coronary and other diseases. Unravelling how they influence our health is a highly complex and exciting challenge for scientists. There are so many of these potentially powerful compounds – more than 8000 are currently identified – that affect our bodies in radical ways. The ease with which they are absorbed into human tissues varies widely, and they can be difficult to isolate because instead of working alone they function co-operatively – with each other as well as with gut and soil bacteria they come in contact with.

The Monty’s Surprise story
In order to show how gardeners can boost health by more carefully selecting which varieties of food crops they grow, Christensen shares his experience with Monty’s Surprise apples – one of the highest-performing food crops he’s cultivated:
“The idea of apples having health benefits is found in every niche of our culture so, when several friends of mine developed cancer, I became curious whether there might be an apple that would prevent or even arrest the progress of this disease.
“In April 2001, I went on a road trip through the central North Island and during a rest stop was excited to come across an ancient apple tree growing on the roadside reserve. On its branches grew large fruits that on close examination were clean, disease-free and very tasty. It’s not often you make a discovery like this so I later returned and gathered some fruit, wood and a small length of root with an eye to cultivating it.”
All three samples were subsequently established in the HFCRT orchard: the root grew into a tree that is genetically identical to the ‘mother tree’; the wood was grafted onto various rootstocks; and seeds from the apples have been systematically reared, carrying half of the parent tree’s genetic material.

Research on apples inhibiting cancer
Around this time Christensen came across two scientific articles highlighting medical rather than simply nutritional benefits of apples. The first, by a Finnish research group suggested flavonoids might reduce deaths from coronary disease.1 A second article, in Nature magazine, promoted apples as a dietary source of vitamin C, making the then-radical link that whole-apple extracts inhibited the growth of colon- and liver-cancer cells in vitro in a dose-dependent manner.2
Closer to home the health benefits of apples were also being investigated by Dr Tony McGhie of New Zealand’s Plant & Food Research Institute, who was looking at the range of polyphenolic compounds in commercial apple varieties including Red Delicious.3 In response to a conversation with McGhie, Christensen sent apples of various heritage and seedling origin to him for testing. In 2004 McGhie verified that a number of the heritage varieties exceeded the level of beneficial antioxidants found in the Red Delicious samples, and Monty’s Surprise led the field.4

Networking internationally
The following year a French study demonstrated that apples provided protection from colon cancer.5 They showed procyanidin compounds in the skin of a traditional French cider apple were more effective than pharmaceutical drugs at reaching the seat of the colon where they were able to exert anti-tumour properties.
Christensen sent the data on the New Zealand apples to Dr Francis Raul, lead researcher in the French study, who expressed a wish to include Monty’s Surprise in his ongoing studies. Apples were harvested, and cider and cider vinegar were made from the fruit. These were converted into powdered extracts and sent to Dr Raul in Strasbourg. Subsequent in vitro testing showed that the procyanidins from the Monty’s Surprise samples exhibited potent anti-proliferative effects on the human colon cancer cell line tested.
The remarkable effectiveness of those procyanidins has also been confirmed by Dr Izabela Konczak at Food Science Australia, a unit of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) who found that Monty’s Surprise samples with highest procyanidin levels achieved the greatest inhibition of cancer cells in a dose-dependent manner for both colon and stomach cancer cell lines.

The anti-inflammatory bonus
While the success of Monty’s Surprise – the grafted version of the original tree – was unfolding, seedlings were maturing and now bear fruit of their own. Because the seedlings are Monty’s Surprise crossed with other heritage trees that thrive in the HFCRT orchard, each one is unique. Christensen sees this as an ideal context in which new beneficial varieties will develop.
In 2012, Plant & Food Research joined with the Department of Environment and Agro-biotechnologies in Luxembourg to measure the levels of procyanidins, triterpenes and other compounds understood to have significant anti-inflammatory action in 109 heritage and modern cultivar varieties grown in New Zealand and Luxembourg.6
Keen to see how the anti-inflammatory properties of Monty’s Surprise compared with this dataset, Christensen arranged measurement of fruit from some of his heritage stock including several Monty’s seedlings. One of the seedlings (still known only by its alpha-numeric identifier AA12) stood out with its dark red apples, pleasant flavour and ‘orchard-friendly’ horizontal branching habit. Fortuitously it was found to have significantly high levels of anti-inflammatory triterpenes, and will now be used to establish a new strand of research alongside existing anti-cancer and other health benefitting initiatives supported by the Trust