Professor Monique Simmonds, head of the innovation unit at Kew, said the bitter compounds in some of these plants (the parts that typically contain health-promoting properties) had often been bred out of cultivated versions, but were still present in wild varieties.
Food and drink companies that wanted to explore some of these plants with a view to developing new healthy ingredients could work with experts at Kew to identify which varieties were most likely to contain particular compounds and then explore the viability of cultivating them to produce extracts with the desired properties, she said.
Simmonds, who was speaking to FoodManufacture.co.uk at a Leatherhead Food Research conference on natural trends in food and drink held at Kew Gardens, said Kew was working with some of the biggest names in the food industry including Nestlé and GlaxoSmithKline on such projects.
She added: “There are scores of plants in our own backyard from rhubarb to elderflower that have potentially interesting properties. However, whenever you are using plants, you have to be sure that you are using the right varieties, and that the extracts you are using actually contain the active ingredients you are interested in.
“We come across so many cases where firms are not supplying the genuine article, or where they are doing data searches and they don’t know which name to search under as these plants have multiple names.”
She also urged food manufacturers and ingredients suppliers to get involved with a new international project spearheaded by Kew to build a definitive, searchable database of names for plant species.