Giving nature a nudge

Herbs are beautiful, edible plants that offer a mouth watering spectrum of aromas and flavours. At R&G there’s a tremendous amount of ‘behind the scenes’ work that goes into making sure the company delivers a consistently high quality product that stays fresher for longer, without compromising on taste, texture or appearance.

Dr Laura Graham is a plant physiologist and is employed as New Product Development Manager at R&G. From her on-site laboratory, Laura focuses on research and development of existing product lines, alongside new product development.

‘Much of my work is based around extending the life of the herbs and retaining flavour in the most natural way possible,’ commented Laura. For the last two and a half years the scientist has worked alongside university academics, PhD and Masters degree students on research projects and field experiments to increase the natural life of the herbs.

‘Even when harvested, the plant is still breathing, it’s still a living organism. My task is to slow down metabolism, to reduce the speed of degradation’ she explained.

All R&G herbs are packaged in micro perforated bags. Laura has been experimenting with changing the packaging characteristics in order to alter the gas balance inside.

‘Each herb uses oxygen at a different rate, so the packaging needs to be tailored specifically for each herb type. We want the perfect gas balance to match each herb’s respiration rate, to reduce the degradation process as much as possible,’ added Laura.

By changing the gas balance and ultimately the herb’s environment, Laura also needs to ensure there are no issues with food safety, by examining the microbial activity.

R&G works with Dr Carol Wagstaff from the University of Reading on improving shelf life through reducing ethylene production, a plant hormone that is produced naturally by the herbs.

Ethylene enhances ripening in fresh fruit and vegetables and can cause the produce to degrade quickly. Laura explains: ‘We’ve been running trials and experiments that block the ethylene receptors, we’ve worked with coriander, a herb that very quickly turns an unsightly yellow when it degrades – and so far the results are extremely promising.’

In addition to looking at the plant’s environment and how it is nurtured during growth, Laura and her team have also been developing the herbs themselves. R&G has been working with specialist herb breeders, exploring the possibilities of growing alternative varieties of herbs that benefit from enhanced characteristics developed through specialised breeding techniques.

When asked about other new product developments, Laura was naturally more cautious, so as not to reveal too many trade secrets. ‘Herbs are very versatile,’ she offered as a way of summarising her research. ‘I’m of the opinion that they can be used in a variety of different ways, over a range of products that perhaps people haven’t really thought about before,’ she explained. ‘But I’ve got to say, we’re working on some pretty exciting stuff, watch this space!’