KANNAPOLIS – We all know that Grandma’s advice to “eat your fruits and vegetables” was correct. Now there’s new research, and a new way to eat the “good stuff” that is found in fruits and vegetables, that makes following that advice even easier.
First though, here’s a unique way to think about fruits and vegetables that you probably haven’t considered before. But it helps to explain why fruits and vegetables have healthy compounds that people need as well.
“Plants are sessile, they are rooted in the ground, they can’t run away from environmental stress, they have to fight the stress with a very complicated pharmacopeia of chemicals,” says Dr. Mary Ann Lila, Director, Plants for Human Health Institute, NC State University. “But these same chemicals, when ingested by humans, or put topically on the skin, will interact with human therapeutic targets, to reduce chronic disease or simply bolster the immune system.”
Scientists are just starting to understand how those plant chemicals are made and how they work, but for the past ten years, Dr. Mary Ann Lila has been researching a way to extract and concentrate the healthy compounds from plants, and then develop nutrient-enhanced foods.
She’s found it.
“So this is a way to take the bioactive compounds, the health protective compounds out of the fruits and vegetables, leaving out all of the water and sugar and getting it concentrated, very much concentrated in a flour, or a flour matrix,” explains Dr. Lila, as she shows me a freezer bag with a purple looking mixture inside. The bag is labeled “muscadine.” It contains soy protein flour mixed with a concentrated juice that contains the healthful compounds found in muscadine grapes.
Dr. Lila and her team at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis have found a way to infuse high protein flour made from hemp, soy, or whey, with the active natural ingredients found in fruits and vegetables. Essentially, the extracts go through a series of steps to remove unneeded sugars, fats and water. That reduces the weight and makes it easier to concentrate the health promoting benefits. The juice mix is then combined with protein powders or flours.
And here’s why Dr. Lila’s creation of those fruit and vegetable infused mixes could be so important.
Everybody knows fresh produce is a critical component of everyday diet and health. The natural compounds found in fruits and vegetables can help improve immune function, inhibit chronic disease development and increase physical and mental capacity.
But the reality is only one percent of Americans eat the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables. Ask around and you’ll find many reasons why:
“Vegetables take too long to cook.”
“I don’t like the taste.”
“I don’t like the texture.”
“Fresh produce is too expensive.”
There’s a practical problem as well. That’s because to get a sufficient dose of those bioactive compounds, a person needs to eat a large amount of produce. In addition, the beneficial compounds are only found in fresh fruits and vegetables. However, that’s not always possible, because fruits and vegetables are difficult to transport and can spoil quickly. The solution then is to somehow extract those beneficial compounds and concentrate them. That’s what Dr. Lila has discovered how to do.
“You take the purified compounds and start working on their chemistry and concentrate it,” says Dr. Mary Grace, the lab director. “So we take the concentrated material, even if it is very small and by this process, you can enrich it. If you have micrograms, we can get milligrams. And also with this process, you get rid of the sugar and the unwanted materials.”
Dr. Lila again shows me the quart bag of muscadine flour and concentrate but then puts her hand around the corner of it.
“So with this process, in a handful of soy protein flour, we could get the equivalent of 2-3 servings of blueberries,” adds Lila. “And you can very easily make this flour into a power bar or something like that, which is very portable and very stable. So the same pepper or the same apple that will rot on the shelf can be made stable for over a year a year at room temperature and the bioactivity is maintained.
Because of the stability, portability, and the health benefits of healthy eating for troops in the field, the US Army has already expressed an interest in the process. The powders will be made into foods by the Army’s Natick Soldier System Center, based in Natick, Massachusetts. The foods are expected to be ready by next spring. Because the products could also apply to foods used by astronauts on long space missions, NASA is also looking at the research.