Boosting Phyto-Benefits for Better Health and Longevity

Boosting Phyto-Benefits for Better Health and Longevity

March 12, 2013

Published in the Charlotte Observer’s Pulse Magazine. 

Broccoli, blueberries and bananas are already tagged “super foods” meaning they are more nutritious than most other fruits and vegetables.  Yet, under the microscopes at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, scientists are finding ways to boost their benefits.

The NCRC is a public-private research center where scientists from Dole Foods, General Mills, Monsanto, Sensory Spectrum and 10 academic and healthcare organizations share in the mission to transform science at the intersection of human health, agriculture and nutrition. Research into specific foods and their phytochemical composition is one specific area of research that falls under the broader scientific goals of the campus.

Phytochemicals are bioactive compounds inside plants. They are not considered essential nutrients for humans, but research is proving that they have immense health benefits in terms of preventing and potentially treating diseases.

Broccoli- the Mega-Vegetable
Broccoli is one of the vegetables under investigation at North Carolina State University Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI), which is located at the NCRC. Broccoli is a mega-vegetable with numerous healthy compounds like sulforaphane, indole 3 carbonols, carotenoids, flavonoids, quercetin, folic acid and vitamins E, K and C. Eating broccoli regularly is known  to help prevent certain cancers and diabetes as well as pulmonary and heart disease.

Broccoli is also a member of the brassica family that includes mustard greens, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Brassicas contain brassinosteroid homobrassinolide, a plant steroid that regulates growth, development and protein synthesis. When this plant steroid is ingested, Slavko Komarnytsky, PhD, and Debora Esposito, PhD, both with PHHI, have found in an animal model that there is a positive effect on building muscle mass.

Allan Brown, PhD, an applied molecular geneticist with PHHI, has found that broccoli has one problem. Varieties can have a four to 10-fold difference in the levels of any one of these healthy compounds. Brown is solving this problem by developing a new broccoli variety with stable levels of all of its compounds so that consumers can be assured they receive the maximum health benefit when they eat the vegetable, and farmers will have a new crop to grow.

Blueberries- Good to Eat, Good to Farm
Blueberries are another “super food” PHHI is researching. Blueberries are high in vitamin C, fiber, manganese and antioxidants that neutralize the free radicals in the human body that are linked to aging and the development of cancer, cardiovascular disease and other age-related illnesses. Brown and PHHI Director Mary Ann Lila, PhD, lead a multi-institutional consortium that is the first to sequence the blueberry genome. This is important because understanding the genome improves the likelihood of new medical applications and nutritionally-enhanced varieties being developed that can benefit consumers and North Carolina’s blueberry industry, the sixth largest in the United States.

The blueberry isn’t only getting attention at PHHI, Carol Cheatham with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) is conducting the B.E.R.R.Y Health Study. Standing for Blueberries: Exciting Research Relevant to You, Cheatham is working with senior citizens to determine if ingesting blueberries regularly has an effect on cognitive abilities. Cheatham’s work is part of the NRI’s mission to develop personalized nutrition with a multi-disciplinary approach that encompasses the study of the nutrient choline, infant brain development, obesity, metabolism, epigenetics, neurovascular development, nutrigenetics and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.

Bananas- Bonanza of Benefits
The Dole Foods Nutrition Research Laboratory and the Appalachian State University Human Performance Laboratory, both at the NCRC, are finding a new bonanza of benefits from bananas. Containing potassium, antioxidants and vitamin B6, bananas are scientifically linked to lowering blood pressure, which prevents heart disease, stroke and atherosclerosis; increasing nutrient absorption in the body, especially calcium; and acting as an anti-inflammatory which helps reduce cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes and obesity. Bananas are also known for their high levels of fiber, which keeps people feeling fuller lending to weight loss. Dole/ASU research proved that bananas are also an effective source of energy when exercising. In fact, more effective than sports drinks with less expense and more nutrition.

From Food to Treatments
Research into specific foods like broccoli, blueberries and bananas is where the impact of research at the NCRC begins. The application of specific phytochemicals and other nutritional interventions to prevent and treat diseases like colorectal, lung and breast cancers, fatty liver disease, anemia, diabetes and obesity is underway in laboratories across the campus. All together, the scientists at the NCRC are paving the way for new choices in crops, produce, functional foods and medicine all geared to provide more effective choices to promote better health and longevity.

Find out about forming research collaborations and other opportunities to take part in the research at the NCRC.

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