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

By 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 [email protected] or 530-747-8052.

Elizabeth Case

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