Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Local researcher hopes to channel superfruit into an economy for small Vietnamese growers

From page A18 | May 04, 2014 |


Le Vuong founded Fishrock Labs to try to create a market for gac, a bright red fruit grown in Vietnam that is rich in beta-carotene and other nutrients. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

Tapered glass bottles filled with viscous orange-red liquid clink on a brown wooden shelf on the second floor of the Davis Roots headquarters.

Right now, they don’t look like much — their labels aren’t sleek, some of the other products next to them don’t yet have names. But the marketing will come, and with them, Le Vuong, hopes to jump-start an economy.

The bottles are filled with gac oil — or as Vuong calls it, redmelon oil. Rich with nutrients like β-carotene and backed by science that shows its health potential, Vuong founded Fishrock Labs, a gac-based food and cosmetic startup. She hopes her products will create demand for gac, opening up a market for small growers in northern Vietnam.

If they grow the fruit to sell, she thinks they will also grow it to eat, as rice or oil. High in β-carotene, this could potentially help naturally solve a vitamin A deficiency — the leading cause of childhood blindness — since the body breaks down β-carotene breaks into two vitamin A molecules.

Before Vuong graduated from UC Davis in 1997, she was a kid in Saigon. She grew up fairly privileged, she said, but saw the effects poverty had on her classmates.

“I witnessed a lot of problems, where (with) just a small infection … sometimes people died.”

Vuong came to the U.S. for college, but returned home for her research. During her doctorate, she helped UCD professors Carl Keen and Louis Grivetti collect a variety of native fruits and vegetables from the Hai Duong province in northern Vietnam. When they analyzed its nutritional value, gac had the highest levels of β-carotene, scoring better than tomatoes or carrots, Western nutrient powerhouses. Neither are common parts of the Vietnamese diet.

“I never liked the idea of an intervention — introducing something that we have here into their diet,” Vuong said, citing golden rice or β-carotene pills as examples.

Instead, Vuong set up a clinical trial that showed gac provided more β-carotene than synthetic vitamins. However, because the villages had little access to refrigeration, people could only receive the health benefits when the fruit was harvested in the winter.

To solve this problem, she designed a hydraulic oil press at the UCD Food Technology Pilot Plant with the help of David Paige and returned to Vietnam to squeeze out 100 liters of oil. The villagers used the oil for cooking, as a moisturizer, and for wound treatment. But the farmers wouldn’t grow gac because there was no one to sell it to.

With Fishrock, she hopes to change that. Along with β-carotene, the fruit has high levels of omegas 3, 6 and 9 — potentially making the oil a vegan replacement of fish oil. With her line of cosmetics — hand creams and lip balms — and edible oils, Fishrock aims to singlehandedly cultivate a gac market.

“These projects I see that try to help developing countries often end up supporting big corporations,” she said. “It is very easy for a company to focus on the bottom line, and to forget the goal they had at the starting line.”

Currently, the company is still looking for funding, starting with the crowdsourcing website Indiegogo. Vuong has a team of volunteers helping her get Fishrock off the ground.

“We’re definitely putting some sweat equity into it,” said Nick Chladek, a UCD MBA graduate helping Vuong. “The more we get (fundraising), the more we can scale our product.”

Their fundraising campaign will go live this week. Vuong hopes to raise at least $50,000.

— Reach Elizabeth Case at ecase@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8052.

Elizabeth Case


Discussion | 11 comments

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  • Rich RifkinMay 04, 2014 - 8:05 pm

    "The bottles are filled with gac oil — or as Vuong calls it, redmelon oil." ............... It helps to have a new, more appetizing name than "gac." Redmelon is not too bad, but I would think marketers could find something even better. No one in the West ever ate "kiwi fruit," which were originally from China, when they were known as "Chinese gooseberries." But when New Zealand farmers planted them, and produce importers changed the name to kiwi fruit, consumers (in the West) took a chance and they have been popular ever since.

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  • Le VuongMay 06, 2014 - 1:11 pm

    Thank you Rich for a very insightful comment. I totally agree with you. Marketing is not my skill-sets and can definitely benefit from marketers. Shoot me a message when you have time or in area. I would be very interested in talking to you more. LV

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  • Stephen DuekerMay 06, 2014 - 1:22 am

    Redmelon dipping oil as Roseolive is one of the most delightful experiences to be had, blending the best of California artisan olive oils with the proprietary Redmelon extract. This local/global product is only waiting for the right combination of marketing and financing to take off. Dr. Vuong has been relentless for over 20 years, having several patents on its cold extraction and a line of products from lip balms to dipping oils. Quite interesting. This phytochemical rich fruit oil is unique, its closest kin being red palm oil. These products have local backing from both UCD and business. If you wish to get involved, contact Dr. Vuong. Think the next Burt's Bee or Amy's products, with a story that traces to the ancestral foods of Vietnam. This companywill support small farmers in Vietnam while building enterprise in the Davis region. Please check it out. To be clear, I am an an early researcher in the Gac oil while at UCD. S. Dueker

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  • romanticmiddleagedMay 06, 2014 - 8:03 am

    In this article Ms. Vuong makes it sound as if you give her money you will be saving another country. She is making cosmetics and trying to make money by asking for donations from people. She is running a business,people. I hate this kind of article because it makes it sound like this is some non profit or charity to help the poor. It is a business pure and simple. The above commenter said it best. Calling it the next Burt's Bees.

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  • Le VuongMay 06, 2014 - 1:27 pm

    Dear romanticmiddleaged, Thank you for sharing your opinion. Your comment keeps me on track of my vision - to create and to share. Please feel free to stop by at my office when you are in Davis. LV

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  • SiphonMay 06, 2014 - 8:37 pm

    I think romanticmiddleage lives in north korea on dirt and bark....probably not. Industry benefits all when executed with ethics and vision. Its a great thing. Taking 20 plus years of research and commitment to market is very "unromantic". Lets all rejoice in our trust funds or spouse's toiling, whatever gives one the ability to do squat. Build an innovative business. Its the thing to do!

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  • romanticmiddleagedMay 06, 2014 - 11:17 pm

    Siphon, I have been both "dirt poor" and now I own my own business in Davis. I believe in ethics. Obviously, my philosophy is not one of asking for hand outs. This is the age of the internet and I know people ask for all kinds of things on web sites, I prefer to earn my money through my own hard work. How exactly is the money from this company helping farmers in Vietnam. What percentage do they get? I said what I meant. I dislike this kind of article because it makes it sound like the company is some kind of non-profit or charity. When it really is just a money making capitalistic venture.

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  • SiphonMay 07, 2014 - 12:32 am

    Go check it out. Snap judgments without proper information diminish your position and frankly you are whack!!! on this subject. Who cares what you think or feel. What do you KNOW. Do you research and then give your informed opinion. Davis Roots Business Incubator. Second street. Fishrock laboratories I will accept your evaluation after you gather proper information. No cheating now thinking your gut informs all. Don't pull a George Bush. Cheers

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  • romanticmiddleagedMay 07, 2014 - 8:08 am

    I know that the company's products are cosmetics and oils. I know that no one has answered my question on how much the farmers get. I know that the company is asking for money on the internet. I know that you are a reactionary person who seems to have missed the part about free speech in our country. And by the way, this is the place for comments. Mine are as valid as anyones. Even if you don't like them. And I am fairly sure that dirt farmers in North Korea don't get to read the Davis Enterprise.

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  • SiphonMay 07, 2014 - 4:32 pm

    I dont know what the farmers get but, but at a minimum they have an outlet to sell a value added fruit that is the absolute highest source of provitamin A available in the country. The company can comment. Read Dr. Vuongs papers on the redmelon, as well as accelerator MS drug development for neonates using advanced technology. I can assure you researchers are some of the most underppaid people in the Country. Your cynicism regarding exploitve capitalism running amok is reactionary as well. Le has setup small production facilities in VN for redmelon capsules which are sold within the country. She has distributed miropresses to womens groups over there so they can make their own oils. She has not profited ever in anyway. That is a FACT. We live in a blogging world where everyone thinks it their right to say whatever they like. Anonymity promotes reckless commentary. You have every right to say what you like. I have every right to correct your statements. A healthy dialog, yes? Cheers. 1.Vuong, L.T., Bioavailability of Dietary Carotenoids in Humans: A Review of Results from Studies with Momordica cochinchinensis Spreng (Redmelon(TM)) and of 14-C-Tracer Studies Using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry in Phytochemicals: Health promotion and Therapeutic Potential; CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group; 2012. Link to Book on Amazon 2.Vuong, L.T., Blood A.,Vogel J.S., Anderson M.E., Goldstein B. Applications of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) in Pediatric Drug Evaluation, Bioanalysis, August 2012. 3.Dueker, S.R., Lohstroh, P.N., Giacomo, J.A., Vuong, L.T., Keck, B.D., Vogel, J.S. Quantifying exploratory low dose compounds in humans with AMS. Advance Drug Delivery Reviews (2010) (In press). 4.Dueker, S.R., Lohstroh, P.N., Giacomo, J.A., Vuong, L.T., Keck, B.D., Vogel, J.S. Early human ADME using microdose and microtracer: Bioanalytical considerations. Bioanalysis , March, 2010. 5.Le Thuy Vuong, Pete Lohstroh, Arlin Blood, Herbert Vasquez, John Vogel; Applying 14C-AMS in Neonatal Research and Care; Journal of Labelled Compounds and Radiopharmaceuticals, 2009. 6.Le Thuy Vuong, Jon L Ruckle, Arlin B Blood, Michael J Reid, Richard D Wasnich, Hans-Arno Synal, Stephen R Dueker, Use of accelerator mass spectrometry to measure the pharmacokinetics and peripheral blood mononuclear cell concentrations of Zidovudine, Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, 2008. 7.Stephen R.Dueker, Le Thuy Vuong, Brian Faulkner, Bruce A.Buchholz, John S.Vogel, Disposition of 14C-?-carotene following delivery with autologous triacylglyceride-rich lipoproteins. Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research; B 259,767 –772, 2007. 8.Le Thuy Vuong, Adrian A. Franke, Laurie J. Custer, Suzanne P. Murphy, Momordica cochinchinensis SPRENG. (Gac) fruit contains high b-carotene and lycopene levels. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, Vol 19/6-7 pp 664-668, 2005. 9.L T. Vuong, B. Buchholz, S.R. Dueker, AMS and in vivo phytochemical research, Nutrition Review, 62: 375-388, Oct 2004. 10.L.T. Vuong, J.King. A method of preserving and testing the acceptability of Gac fruit oil, a good source of beta-carotene and essential fatty acids. Food and Nutrition Bulletin 2003; 24 (2):224-230. 11.Le Vuong, Chureeporn Chitchumroonchokchai, Mary Chapman, Betty Ishida, Janet King, and Mark Failla. High bioaccessibility of carotenes and lycopenes in Gac oil and Gac fruit aril. The FASEB Journal, Experimental Biology 03, 4/2003. 12.L.T.Vuong, S.R.Dueker, S.P.Murphy, Plasma ß-carotene and retinal concentrations of children increase following a 30-day supplementation with the fruit Momordica Cochinchinensis Spreng (Gac); American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2002, 75(5),872-80. (http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/75/5/872). 13.Le T Vuong, Under-utilized beta-carotene-rich crops of Vietnam. Food and Nutrition Bulletin, Vol. 21, No.2, June 2000, pp.173-81. (http://www.unu.edu/unupress/food/fnb21-2.pdf). 14.Le Thuy Vuong. A food-based approach for the prevention of vitamin A deficiency – The Vietnam Experience. Sight and Life Newsletter, Jan. 2000. 15.L.T.Vuong, S.R.Dueker, S.P.Murphy. Daily consumption of Momordica Rice (xoi gac), an indigenous carotenoid rich food, increases plasma beta-carotene, retinol, and hemoblobin concentrations of preschoolers in Vietnam. The FASEB Journal, Experimental Biology 99, p. A251, Abstract 219.10, Vol 13, No 4, 3/12/1999. 16.L. T. Vuong, K.P.Nguyen, J.P. Ikeda. Use of mass Media to Improve Nutritional Knowledge. The FASEB Journal, Experimental Biology 99, p. A547, Abstract 440.1, Vol 13, No 4, 3/12/1999. 17.L.T.Vuong. The Food Processing of Vietnam – an assessment of the current situtation and recommendations. Special Report, Editor:J.P.Bock, Duetsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit, Hanoi, Vietnam, 4/1999. 18.Le Thuy Vuong. Xoi Gac, a rice preparation containing ß-carotene from Momordica Cochinchinnensis Spreng (gac), for the prevention of vitamin A deficiency of children in northern Vietnam. Dissertation, University of California at Davis, Dec.1998. 19.Le Thuy Vuong. Gac: a Fruit from Heaven. VietnamJournal.org, web-publication.

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  • NickMay 13, 2014 - 3:49 pm

    Please visit theIndiegogo site! https://www.indiegogo.com/explore?utf8=%E2%9C%93&filter_title=redmelon

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