Nuka Limited - a smokin' success story

FOODBOWL

Kānuka from the whenua to food

1/9/2021: Kiri shared more of the Nuka story with Radio New Zealand on the Nine to Noon Show - LISTEN to the interview here

It’s a powerful proposition when your driving force is to integrate the power of science and technology to realise the potential of whenua by finding novel ways to sustain Māori landowners through the development of progressive F&B products.

But it is this passion and progressive thinking that is catapulting the success of start-up Nuka, into the limelight. 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 plant grows wild and the aroma of the trees gives off a homely fragrance.

How could she capture this into a successful business and specifically a food product?

With widespread support of whānau, iwi and a larger group involved in a wānanga to full explore the opportunity, Dr Dell worked with a colleague at Auckland University, Associate Professor Saeid Baroutian, Chemical and Materials Engineer, to find a way to capture the hidden flavours of kānuka, creating a liquid smoke.

The pair refined and experimented with the process at the University and then moved production to the FoodBowl in Auckland.

This liquid smoke, Nuka’s first product is a food flavouring ingredient which 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.

The smoke caught the attention of industry and two companies have purchased the entire first production run.

Getting the liquid smoke into a bottle was not an easy process and the highly specialised process required the Nuka team to bring their own piece of equipment (from Auckland University) into the FoodBowl. “This allowed us the benefit of a food-grade facility and the opportunity to be supported in scaling-up to a production run without the outlay of too much operational capital,” explains Dr Dell.

This manufacturing opportunity also allowed them to further test and prove their concepts at a larger scale. The next step is to scale up further by building a larger machine to produce their product in Ruatōria in their own manufacturing plant.

“Nothing was too hard for the team at the FoodBowl – they wanted us to succeed and when the smoke emitted from our processes needed to be dealt with, together we explored so many options. In the end – they adapted their physical space to accommodate us.” Dr Dell adds that without an open-access space like the FoodBowl, she is not really sure how Nuka would have bridged the gap between R&D at the university to then moving into their own plant.

Another vital link in the process that FoodBowl helped with was connecting the team with the appropriate Food Technologist to work with them on the process.

With proof of concept achieved, the first batch sold-out and plans underway for increased production, the Nuka team are working on two other products from kānuka. One is a food-grade charcoal from the by-products of the smoke extraction process and the other a juice from the leaf of the plant. Trials for both are underway at the FoodBowl.

More about the process

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.”