In the Exercise and Sports Science Laboratory at Queens University in Charlotte, two students pedal stationary bicycles rotating between one-minute intervals of heavy exertion and 75 seconds at a slower, resting pace. These students are just two out of a total of 60 who will endure these workouts three times a week for four weeks to help an unprecedented consortium of scientists answer one question: can polyphenols get you fitter faster?
“Our theory is that taking these polyphenols (which are health-promoting compounds found in plants) one hour before exercise will help the students’ bodies adapt to the high-intensity training better,” explained David Nieman, DrPH, director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Laboratory at the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis. “If polyphenols are at high levels in the body while the students train there could be more stimuli to increase mitochondrial function and get fitter faster. This has never been tested in humans before.”
Nieman is leading the study in collaboration with Plant & Food Research, a New Zealand Crown Research Institute that conducts research and development to add value to fruits, vegetables, cereals, marine fishes and native plants as food products and nutritional supplements. The collaboration also involves the NC State University Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) and Dole Foods, both at the NCRC, as well as Queens University. Funding from Plant & Food Research and Dole made the study possible.
Students, Blueberries and Blackcurrants
ASU, Dole and NCSU are frequent NCRC collaborators, most often working with trained athletes. This study employs young, healthy, yet relatively unfit men and women. Amy Knab, PhD, professor of exercise and sports science at Queens University, helped recruit the students for the study.
“We’ve done different things in the past with highly trained subjects,” she said, reflecting on her past work on Nieman’s research team. “The thing that is different about this study is that these are untrained subjects from the get go, and we are training them.”
The first two cohorts of the study trained in the fall of 2014, and the third will be trained during the spring of 2015. Each cohort of 20 students trains for four weeks, with fitness testing during the week before and after the training period. They start out with a blood draw and testing to establish their base fitness level. For the next four weeks, they are given blackcurrant polyphenols in a capsule, blueberry powder or placebo as controls.
“There are two arms to the study, blackcurrants and blueberries,” explained Mary Ann Lila, PhD, PHHI director. “Plant & Food Research is looking at a particular New Zealand blackcurrant extract and a particular anthocyanin (a type of polyphenol). We are looking at whole blueberry freeze dried into a powder. So the study is not pitting blackcurrants against blueberries.”
The study is combining resources and focusing the efforts of groups with complementary research goals. Plant & Food Research studies polyphenolic content and bioactive compounds and their effect on human performance as do PHHI and ASU, respectively.
Lila’s relationship with Plant & Food Research started in 1999 when she spent a sabbatical at the institute. She has collaborated with them on a regular basis since then. Plant & Food Research scientists have visited the NCRC four times in the last four years, even embedding a scientist with PHHI for three months to work specifically on this polyphenol study.
The collaborators are looking for study results that have practical applications. Blackcurrants in New Zealand, like blueberries in the US, are a profitable crop with untapped market potential.
“There is added benefit to Plant & Food Research and to New Zealand if the findings from this study, together with results from our research programs, raise the awareness of the health benefits of berries in general,” said Roger Hurst, science group leader of the Food & Wellness Group at Plant & Food Research and adjunct professor at Massey University. “An additional benefit is derived if that is specifically around blackcurrant or blueberry. Even further benefit is derived if new foods are created from the findings (that) will bring added value and increase export sales for New Zealand.”
“We’re always interested in actionable, dietary advice for fruits and vegetables,” added Nicholas Gillitt, PhD, Dole Foods vice president of nutrition research and director of the Dole Nutrition Institute. “The idea that you can consume berries during training and get a benefit out of it is very appealing to Dole. It is a way of engaging the consumer and educating them from a scientific platform about the extra benefits they can get from berries.”
The question still remains, can polyphenols get you fitter faster? The answer will be known after the last cohort of Queens University students completes the study and the data is analyzed later this year.