New research uncovers the effects on skin health of what we wear

AgResearch scientists are shedding new light on the connection between what people wear and the health of their skin.

In research funded by Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), AgResearch has been working with human volunteers and testing skin reactions to different fabrics.

Initial findings show benefits for skin health from the natural fibre (wool) over a synthetic fibre (polyester).

The work follows on from studies by AWI at the Queensland Institute of Dermatology and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute that showed significant reductions in sufferers’ eczema symptoms from wearing superfine wool garments against the skin.

“There’s been a lot of science looking at the connection between our health and what we put in our bodies, but here we are looking what we wear on our bodies and what that may mean for our skin health,” says AgResearch scientist Dr Alex Hodgson.

“We set out with our 16 volunteers to look at how their healthy skin reacted to wearing close-fitting fabrics during the day – wool and polyester. The volunteers wore merino wool base-layer shirts, with a patch of polyester on one side of their upper back area.

“We took skin measurements from both sides (wool and polyester) of their upper backs in a lab over a period of four weeks to look at things such as hydration, water loss through the skin, and inflammation.”

The researchers found polyester tended to reduce the hydration of the wearers’ skin and also – especially for men – resulted in increased redness or inflammation of the skin.  The skin covered with wool showed no negative effects during the study.

“From this we can see that wool promoted the maintenance of healthy skin whilst polyester had a drying effect with some inflammation,” Dr Hodgson said.

“The study has a second phase which involves a ‘long-term’ wear study in which the volunteers wear the trial garments continuously for five days and nights. The results of this will be assessed later this year.”

Ultimately, this work is about providing guidance and reassurance for consumers, Dr Hodgson said.

“We know consumers now consider many factors before they buy goods. Just as people now know what different foods can do to their health, our aim is that people will also be able to make informed choices about what they wear, and what that might mean for the health of their skin.”

The eight men and eight women who volunteered for the study ranged in age from 25 to 63 years.

Source: AgResearch


Burgers without beef and other synthetic foodstuffs – what it all means for NZ

Yum … this is the first hamburger made entirely from cell-cultured beef in Dr Mark Post’s laboratory at Maastricht University, but you might have gagged on the €250,000 price-tag.  

The future of food – especially the emergence of “synthetic foods” and what this might mean for New Zealand as a major food producer – was among the issues raised in our previous post (HERE). It also has been addressed in media articles and BBQ conversations this summer.

Tom Richardson is chief executive of AgResearch, a Crown research institute dedicated to growing the value of New Zealand’s agri-food sector. He is confident the science organisation is highly attuned to both the challenges and opportunities posed by the new food technologies.

Dr Tom Richardson is optimistic about the future of NZ’s traditional food exports.

He recently wrote an opinion piece (HERE) which looks into the threats from synthetic foods – and the opportunities.

He starts with an expression of confidence in the future of meat and dairy products.

From where we sit, the claims of an impending collapse of New Zealand’s traditional food exports in the face of this alternative protein revolution just don’t reflect what we are seeing and experiencing.

But he also recognises the pace of development of new products.

There is no question the technology to produce “synthetic foods” (including animal cell culture to produce meats and milk without animal farming, and plant-based substitutes that emulate the taste, smell and texture of animal products) is advancing rapidly.

Those advances are dramatically improving the quality of these products whilst at the same time reducing costs.  In the last four years, the cost of cell cultured meat patties has dropped from US$325,000 to US$12 and Impossible Foods is now able to produce four million plant-based protein burgers a month, and selling them in restaurants at the same price as a premium meat burger (around US$15).

As we seek to feed a global population heading beyond nine billion by 2050, we need a host of sustainable food production systems. These new technologies, and others not yet in development, will be an important component of our global food system, and more and more of us will meet some portion of our dietary requirements through them.

And in fact I think NZ can carve out its own niches in “synthetic foods” – which we will see play out over time.

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World-leading sensors to guide action against contamination of waterways

AgResearch reports it has developed world-leading sensors to better understand how nitrogen is being excreted by cows, and therefore how best to tackle the impacts on the environment.

The urine sensors, which have been a work in progress since 2010, are attached to grazing dairy cows and take detailed measurements every time the cow urinates, including volume and frequency – and crucially the concentration of nitrogen in the urine that can potentially leach into soil and waterways, and can cause damage such as algal blooms.

A recent Colmar Brunton poll found pollution of lakes and rivers to be one of the top two concerns for New Zealanders, but there is now promising research underway to address the challenges for water quality such as nitrogen leaching.

AgResearch senior scientist Dr Brendon Welten says the benefit of the urine sensors is a much greater understanding of the behaviour of the cows, which can help develop techniques to mitigate the nitrogen leaching from farms.

“Other sensors exist around the world to provide data from livestock, but these sensors we’ve developed are unique in their ability to record nitrogen concentrations each time the cow urinates during grazing,” Dr Welten says.

“We can learn, for example, how different species of pasture affect the amount of nitrogen excreted in urine.”

The sensors weigh about 1.5 kg, and attach to the cow by a harness connected to a lightweight cow cover. They record the data through the use of multiple instruments (temperature, pressure and refractive index), with data stored in a data logger that can be remotely accessed via a wireless network system.

The sensors have already been used in both the United Kingdom and Australia.

“The operation of the sensors is complex, and at this stage we are working towards offering the sensors to other researchers around the world to allow them to use the technology to make similar gains,” Dr Welten says.

“AgResearch will have the expertise to support those researchers to use the technology and maximise the benefits from it.”

The sensors have played a part in important progress made in the Forages for Reduced Nitrate Leaching (FRNL) programme* – involving DairyNZ, AgResearch, Plant & Food Research, Lincoln University, the Foundation for Arable Research and Manaaki Whenua (Landcare Research).

DairyNZ senior scientist Ina Pinxterhuis says the FRNL results clearly confirm the variability in urinary nitrogen excretion over the day, making it necessary to have many repeated measures. The sensors make this possible.

He says “it is great to see that the options we examine to reduce nitrate leaching do result in lower daily urinary nitrogen excretion and lower nitrogen concentration – if not during the whole 24 hours of the day, at least for some parts’.

The information provides new options for management too.

Work to begin in Manawatū on cutting-edge food research facility

A new food research facility has reached an important milestone, with a contractor appointed and the construction process to start this week.

The $45 million AgResearch and Massey University Food Science Facility, on the university’s Manawatū campus, will accommodate about 140 staff and students from the two organisations as well as from the Government-funded centre of research excellence, the Riddet Institute.

It will feature laboratories and shared spaces focused around education and research into meat and dairy in a three-storey, 5000 square metre building that will be New Zealand’s largest agri-food innovation centre.

The facility will also be a key component of FoodHQ – a partnership to grow New Zealand’s reputation in food and beverage innovation that includes AgResearch and Massey University among its network of science and innovation partners (more at

AgResearch Chief Executive Dr Tom Richardson says work to prepare the site for building is due to begin after Waitangi Day.

The plan is to have the building completed by October 2019.

“The occupants will include AgResearch staff already based in Palmerston North, and others working in the food sciences who will be relocating to the city,” Dr Richardson says.

“This new joint facility concept – similar to what AgResearch is doing with Lincoln University near Christchurch – is going to accelerate innovation by having world-class talent working together under one roof. In the case of food research, it means the opportunity for new generation products that offer exciting new textures and flavours, and improve peoples’ health and nutrition.”

Massey Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas says the facility is another exciting development for the university and its Manawatū campus, and integral to Massey’s collaborations with research institutions and other organisations and businesses involved in growing New Zealand’s food exports and reputation for quality and innovation.

Record temperatures raise animal welfare issues for farmers

Record-breaking heatwaves this summer have prompted AgResearch scientists to advise that farmed animals can be susceptible and farmers should manage it.

The extreme temperatures across the country include the hottest recorded temperature in Dunedin and Invercargill in recent days.

AgResearch senior scientist Dr Karin Schütz says (HERE) her organisation’s extensive research over the last 15 years into dairy cows and how they cope with the heat has provided important insights for animal management.

“Like many mammals, dairy cows are more sensitive to heat than they are to cold,” Dr Schütz says.

“A large animal like a lactating cow generates a lot of metabolic heat, and while it will increase its respiratory rate and sweat like a human being, it can struggle in especially warm conditions to lose the heat.”

“When you see the animal starting to drool and open-mouth panting, it’s a sign it is in distress from the heat.”

Dr Schütz says the cows will change their behaviour to cope in the warm conditions, including drinking more, eating less, seeking out “micro-climates” in the shade or close to water, and orienting themselves differently from the sun.

“They also don’t lie down as much, which may be to increase the airflow around their bodies.”

Research showed that when the air temperature reached 21degC and humidity more than 75 per cent, it could affect the cow’s behaviour and milk production could decline, Dr Schütz says.

“If you want to keep up production, you need to keep your animals cool. That can mean providing shelter (such as trees), increasing access to drinking water, reducing walking distances, and preventing stress. If it is really hot, a lot of farmers will use sprinklers at their milking sheds to cool the cows as they wait to be milked.”

“Given a choice however, we have found the cows will seek shade over the sprinklers, and from our research we know the cows can tell the difference between different degrees of shade, and will choose shade that protects them more from solar radiation.”

DairyNZ animal husbandry team leader Helen Thoday says prevention of heat stress is more cost-effective than trying to manage the consequences once cows become heat stressed.

“All activity will increase the risk of heat stress, including walking to the water trough, to and from the dairy shed, and even grazing as normal,” she says.

“When hot conditions are forecast, some short-term solutions to reduce heat stress are to graze cows close to the dairy shed to reduce walking distance for milking, and to milk later in the afternoon/early evening when the temperature has dropped.”

Farmers can also provide supplementary feed at night, so extra heat generated by digestion occurs at the coolest time.

Grass fungi bring economic benefits worth billions of dollars

Fungi that live within grasses are being harnessed by scientists to save the New Zealand economy billions of dollars.

Epichloë endophytes occur naturally in some grasses, such as those used to feed livestock on New Zealand farms. While some types of endophyte can be harmful to livestock, selected endophytes introduced to varieties of grass offer benefits such as deterring insect pests from feeding on the grasses, while minimising any negative health effects.

These opportunities have attracted scientists at AgResearch, whose focus over the past 35 years has been on selecting endophyte strains that can improve the productivity of pastures, while also improving livestock health.

“We have identified and commercialised endophyte strains of such benefit that they are now critical components of pastures in New Zealand,” says AgResearch Science Team Leader Dr Linda Johnson.

“The benefits are undoubtedly in the billions of dollars over time. These include increased farm productivity, reduced costs for animal health, and reduced pasture losses to pests and costs to control those pests. New endophyte strains alone contribute about $200 million every year to the New Zealand economy.”

The endophyte AR37 discovered by AgResearch scientists and released in 2006 for use in ryegrass proved a key success in reducing the impact of a range of pests, and consequently improving animal growth on farms.

Dr Johnson says there is scope for extending the use of endophytes beyond pasture grasses, to other endophyte species that can have benefits for a range of important crops, such as wheat.

“Microbial endophytes are gaining importance as options for the control of pests and diseases in many crops of economic significance,” Dr Johnson says.

The AgResearch team aims to extend the substantial knowledge and understanding they have gained from working with the Epichloë endophytes in grasses to delivering new endophyte options in those other crops.

Food exports of the future boost brainpower, flavour and texture

AgResearch scientists are leading new research which they say could revolutionise New Zealand foods – with new ways of boosting flavour and texture, and products designed to make our brains perform better.

Supported by industry and research partners, AgResearch programmes have recently been awarded more than $21 million by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Endeavour Fund.

“The future for New Zealand food exports to the world is premium quality and adding as much value as possible to our products,” says AgResearch Science Group Leader Dr Jolon Dyer.

“This cutting edge research will look at how we can help deliver premium foods by taking the eating experience, and the health benefits of the food, to new levels.”

The first of two AgResearch-led programmes, supported by commercial partner Fonterra, and with research partners, the Riddet Institute, the Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland, Flinders University (Australia), University College Cork (Ireland), and Illinois University (USA), is called Smarter Lives: New opportunities for dairy products across the lifespan, and focuses on how foods can influence brain performance via the `gut-brain axis’.

“Our gut influences just about everything we do and its connection to the brain is essential to leading healthier lives. People are looking for products that help brain development in children and provide better brain performance through adulthood,” says programme leader Dr Nicole Roy.

“One way is through eating foods that boost brain performance. There is mounting evidence to suggest that frequent consumption of dairy products or probiotics may do just that, but we don’t yet know how. The key is in the two-way communication between the gut and the brain.”

“We’ll be using cutting-edge techniques to understand how dairy ingredients and probiotics can work together to send signals from the gut to optimise brain development and performance. We’ll also be developing prototype foods that combine ingredients in a way that promotes those benefits.”

The second programme, Accelerated evolution: a step-change in food fermentation led by AgResearch, with research partners the Riddet Institute, Callaghan Innovation, Teagasc (Ireland), University of Bologna and Kyoto University, looks at how fermentation – one of the oldest and most economical methods of producing and preserving food – can make products stand out from the crowd, with fewer additives.

Common fermented foods include cheese, yoghurt and sauerkraut.

“We’ll be looking at the process of fermentation, and how we accelerate the process using different scientific methods to create new and desirable flavours and textures for products such as dairy, meat and seafood,” says programme leader Dr Li Day.

“We’ll also determine how these new fermented foods can be identified uniquely with New Zealand, and experienced and enjoyed by consumers internationally.”