Understanding the biology of grains is only one challenge. Understanding how they interact with human biology to prevent disease is another. Shengmin Sang, PhD, associate professor and lead scientist in functional food for NC A&T State University’s Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies (CEPHT) at the NCRC, envisions his research contributing to the day when eating whole grains goes beyond providing basic nutrition and becomes an alternative to medical approaches to prevent diseases like cancer and diabetes.
Identifying Whole Grain Foods
Rich in fiber, protein, iron, vitamins and minerals, scientific evidence supports that the nutritional make-up of grains helps with weight loss and reduces the risk of Type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, some types of cancer, metabolic syndrome and digestive disorders. So being able to identifying whole grain foods when you are out shopping is important.
The Whole Grain Council offers this definition:
“Whole grains or foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. . . . This definition means that 100% of the original kernel – all of the bran, germ, and endosperm – must be present to qualify as a whole grain.”
To easily recognize whole grain foods in the store, look for the Whole Grain Council’s stamp on products. For more information, visit www.wholegrainscouncil.org.
Sang is working on a US Department of Agriculture grant studying the chemical and metabolic profile of wheat bran to identify the specific bioactive compounds that can prevent colon cancer. He and his research team are also focused on identifying specific dietary markers that can more accurately reflect consumption of each type of whole grain, including of all of the major cereals such as wheat, oat and rye.
“Because if you eat whole grain or cereal bran (it) is generally considered fiber,” Sang explained, “but it is not just fiber. It has many different bioactive phytochemicals. More importantly, different cereal bran has different chemical components. One of the major groups of phenolic compounds in whole grain wheat and rye is the 5-n-alkylresorcinols (ARs), which are only present in high amounts in wheat and rye and are not found from oat and corn. Avenanthroamides are unique compounds in oat bran. ”
Sang and his research group are studying whether avenanthroamides and their metabolites can be used as dietary exposure markers to reflect whole oat consumption. By identifying dietary exposure markers, Sang’s research group can help define the genetic differences in how people metabolize and absorb the phytochemicals from whole grains.
As Sang continues to identify more novel metabolites from specific types of bran, he will be able to study at the molecular level how the components of each type of grain act within the human body to prevent disease like colon cancer or diabetes and possibly pave the way to differentiate how dietary fiber in fruits, vegetables and beans are metabolized and work to prevent disease.
If people don’t eat enough whole grains, their potential to ward off disease cannot be realized. Sang and Guibing Chen, PhD, assistant professor and lead scientist in the Food Engineering, Processing and Packaging Laboratory also at NC A&T’s CEPHT, are experimenting with microfluidization and other processing methods to enrich baked goods and cereal products with higher levels of whole grain fiber. Chen’s research shows that the structural changes that occur in wheat bran treated with microfluidization increase the antioxidant activity by as much as three times when compared to bran that is not treated. He is working with corn bran as well. Their goal is to increase the amount of fiber in foods consumers already eat without altering the taste and texture profiles of those foods.
Sang pictures the day when foods like whole grains will truly be the world’s medicine. “Prescribing food- we are not there yet,” he said, “but we’re moving in that direction (when) we’ll be able to say with some certainty that whole grain wheat is better than oat for colon cancer prevention, and oat is better than wheat for high cholesterol.”