Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension P. O. Box 68 LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068 Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Nutraceuticals - Mom Was Right!

One of the fastest growing trends in the food industry is in the area of functional foods.  Functional foods have also been dubbed nutraceuticals, pharmafoods, phytochemicals or designer foods and take in a whole array of foods and nutritional substances.  Driven by an estimated 40 million health conscious Americans, major demographic and psychological shifts in the consumer market are directing market focus toward products that offer specific health benefits.  Dr. Nancy Childs of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia has been tracking consumer interest in functional foods since the early 90's.   According to Dr. Childs, a majority of consumers (55 percent) strongly believe that foods or food products can significantly reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases.  Her findings indicate that the profile of the functional food consumer is a well educated female, approaching middle age, with higher than average income, who is stressed out and trying to lead a healthy active lifestyle.

Nutraceuticals are considered to be any food or part of a food that may provide medical or health benefits including the prevention or treatment of disease.  They are naturally occurring compounds found in plants, algae, microorganisms and other biological sources which support specific bodily health functions.  While there has been a wide range of claims and benefits attributed to the use and consumption of functional foods some of which "stretch" science to the absolutely ridiculous, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that supports the role of phytochemicals in a healthy lifestyle.  Functional foods could play a role in the prevention and treatment of at least four of the leading causes of death in the United States, namely cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension.  The National Cancer Institute estimates that one in three cancer deaths is related to diet and that eight out of ten cancers have a nutrition/diet component.

Many US food giants including Kellogg, Heinz and Nabisco have picked up on this trend and are actively pursuing the development of products with nutraceutical benefits.  Quaker Oats, a leader in capitalizing on the healthy food market,  proclaims, "...fiber from oatmeal, as part of a low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet, may reduce the risk of heart disease."  Ocean Spray cites research supporting cranberries' ability to combat urinary tract infections.

Lycopene -the carotenoid found in tomatoes that gives them their red color, is attracting intense interest among the international research community.  The ground breaking study conducted by the Harvard Medical School which demonstrated a strong correlation between the consumption of tomato products and the reduced risk of prostate cancer, has lead to further research on lycopene.  Lycopene has been shown to have potent anti-oxidant properties, which plays a role in cancer prevention.  As an anti-oxidant, lycopene works to neutralize free radicals, which are normal by-products of the body's metabolic processes.  It is thought that these free radicals can react with and damage molecules in cell membranes and genetic material leading to the development of various diseases, including cancer.  Research at Ben Gurion University in Israel and the American Institute for Cancer Research indicates that lycopene is more potent than carotene in reducing cancerous growths.  In addition to tomatoes, lycopene is found in strawberries, watermelon and red grapefruit.

Broccoli and other crucifers like cauliflower, cabbage and kale, contain phytochemicals known as isothiocyanates, which are known to be effective stimulators of natural detoxifying enzymes in the body and explain why consumption of broccoli and it's relatives are associated with a lower risk of contracting cancer.  Some epidemiological studies, however, indicate that to cut the risk of colon cancer in half a person would have to eat approximately two pounds of broccoli or similar vegetables a week, a target that few people manage to achieve.  Research at John Hopkins School of Medicine has shown that sprouts grown from broccoli seeds contain 30 to 50 times the amount of the anti-cancer principle in mature broccoli.  This discovery makes it possible to easily obtain a reduction in cancer risk with  the consumption of just over an ounce of sprouts per week.

Even more intriguing is the possibility of selecting or breeding cultivars that would have elevated levels of desirable phytochemicals, making them valuable sources of healthful principles.  An example of this is purslane, a common weed which has been identified as containing omega-3 fatty acids.  Omega-3 fatty acids are functional food substances commonly associated with fish oil. These fatty acids have been recognized as having cardiovascular benefits and are thought to contribute to the low incidence of heart disease in certain cultures.  Other beneficial effects attributed to omega-3 fatty acids include the relief of symptoms associated with arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.  Increasing the omega-3 fatty acid content of purslane through breeding or genetic manipulation could result in a new crop with pharmaceutical applications.  Development of plant based sources of these fatty acids could also help take the pressure off rapidly dwindling marine fishery populations.

In addition to the healing qualities of vegetables touched on here, there are a whole range of pharmaceutical properties associated with veggies.  The benefits of carrots and garlic have long been touted.  It seems that moms who have long admonished their children to "eat your vegetables so you will grow big and strong" were at the vanguard of a movement that is already big business.  Nutraceuticals already outsell prescription drugs in Europe and Japan.  Rising health care costs and Americans' concern with health and quality of life coupled with an interest in alternative therapies will ensure that this trend is not likely to fade away soon.  Good luck and good gardening.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or  863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an Equal Employment Opportunity - Affirmative Action Employer authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap or national origin.

Home                       Index