Imagine foods with bright colors, pleasant aromas, great taste and a proven ability to help manage weight and prevent disease.
Actually, no imagination is needed. Just walk into a farmers market or go to the produce department of a local grocery store. The fruits and vegetables lining the shelves are full of vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds that are linked to the prevention of obesity, diabetes, some cancers and cardiovascular disease. Even with all of their benefits, the majority of people worldwide are not eating enough fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.
On A Mission
Monsanto, a multinational agricultural biotechnology company, is on a mission to change that trend by making fruits and vegetables more appealing to consumers while providing farmers with better and more marketable crops. At the forefront of the company’s research and development of new fruit and vegetable varieties are the scientists at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, a public-private consortium of businesses, universities and non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing health, nutrition and agriculture to prevent and treat disease.
“There are a lot of reasons why consumers don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. Some of it has to do with convenience. Some of it has to do with the way things taste,” said Susan MacIsaac, Monsanto’s site lead at the NCRC. “So by being able to enhance characteristics in fruits and vegetables, our hope is that they’ll be more attractive to consumers. They’ll want to eat more and, as a result, they’ll be healthier. That’s absolutely a driving force behind what we do.”
Monsanto’s long-term interest in seed traits for row crops has included nutrition; however, increasing the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables as well as their consumer appeal has evolved over the last several years. The company developed products such as Beneforte broccoli© that has two to three times the phytonutrient glucoraphanin which naturally boosts the body’s antioxidant enzyme levels and the low pungency EverMild Onion©. Another product is the SweatPeak melon that has skin that turns from white to light orange when it’s ripe, and the Melorange with dark-orange flesh that is sweeter in flavor then other cantaloupes and comes with a “perfectly ripe” sticker. Monsanto developed those products before opening its 9,000 square-foot wet lab and office suite at the NCRC in 2011.
As a part of the company’s fruit and vegetable seeds division, Monsanto scientists at the NCRC are focused on investigating specific traits of peppers and melons. “Our focus here (at the NCRC) is to develop, using the analytical technologies of the David H. Murdock Research Institute (DHMRI), ways that we can analyze fruits and vegetables to understand the specific components that influence taste, flavor and aroma,” MacIsaac said. “We have to do specific crop research to select and enhance those traits in our germplasm.”
Analyzing Flavor, Taste and Aroma
That’s where the assets of the NCRC’s DHMRI are critical. The DHMRI houses advanced scientific platforms for genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics and that are required, MacIsaac said, to “identify and quantify a very complex mixture of components.”
“We’ve developed a method to profile the components you perceive and that influence the aroma,” MacIsaac said. “So that allows us to know which components we need to enhance and which components we need to minimize within our various pepper and melon varieties. It’s a pretty challenging undertaking.”
The NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) and Analytical Sciences groups at the DHMRI collaborate closely with Monsanto researchers. Monsanto has access to a variety of instruments including three high field Bruker NMR instruments with field strengths of 600MHz, 700MHz and 950MHz and eight mass spectrometry systems.
As Monsanto’s lab expands its research to other fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, the access to this type of analytical and NMR equipment becomes even more critical. Monsanto is also looking at taking advantage of the DHMRI’s instrumentation for research involving row crops like corn, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa and canola.
“In those areas (like row crops) the focus is on yield and agronomic traits such as insect resistance and herbicide resistance,” MacIsaac said. “There is benefit to using and applying the analytic technology available at DHMRI to improve the crops, and we’re looking at where we can take advantage of it.”
But for now, Monsanto’s focus remains on giving consumers new reasons to choose fruits and vegetables.