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March 19, 2008
Born between 1946 and 1964, 80 million U.S. baby boomers are looking for ways to improve their health and extend their lives. One bit of nutritional advice they should take to heart is adding a hefty helping of colorful fruits and their health-promoting phytochemicals to their daily diet.
The Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, DE, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, developed the “Fruits & Veggies—More Matters” health initiative to replace the existing “5 A Day for Better Health” program as a means of encouraging consumers to eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. The new campaign still emphasizes a variety of colorful plant foods for optimal health, as the colors of fruits and vegetables that come from flavonoid plant pigments play a specific role in promoting health--especially for problems that arise as we age.
Red, purple and blue fruits contain powerful antioxidants, called anthocyanins, known for their health benefits. Scientists have discovered more than 600 anthocyanins in nature. These naturally occurring, water-soluble compounds can be found in high concentrations in cranberries, pomegranates, red grapes, red grapefruit, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and tart cherries.
And, while other flavanols also have a beneficial effect, these flashier compounds are receiving increased scrutiny in the food industry, because of their ability to give product developers a “two-fer” as natural colorants for foods with a legitimate health benefit. Plus, as antioxidants, they might help stave off some undesirable oxidation reactions that occur in various foods as well as aging bodies. “It is possible to use natural, anthocyanin-based food colorants instead of synthetic dyes,” says Monica Giusti, assistant professor of food science, Ohio State University, Columbus. “Doing so still maintains the wonderful colors of foods while enhancing their health-promoting properties.”
Aging can be a bowl of cherries
When asked which properties of foods are most important, adults age 45 and older say foods that promote heart health top the list, according to a Nov. 2007 survey of 1,517 adults, conducted on behalf of Cherry Marketing Institute (CMI), Lansing, MI, by Opinion Research Corporation’s Caravan Omnibus Services, Princeton, NJ.
In recognition of American Heart Month in February, CMI is calling out red as an important cue for heart health. “Tart cherries are, in fact, emerging as one of today’s hottest superfruits, because they contain a unique combination of anthocyanins that are linked to factors the 45-plus consumer is concerned about: heart disease, arthritis and/or joint pain and diabetes,” says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, LDN, CSSD, director of sports nutrition, University of Pittsburgh, and advisory panel member, CMI.
Recent research conducted by the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, found that a cherry-rich diet significantly lowered blood cholesterol levels, reduced triglycerides, and lowered insulin and fasting glucose levels—major risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. A growing body of evidence also shows tart cherries have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and contain pain-relieving compounds similar to those found in aspirin. Tart cherries also are one of the few food sources of melatonin, a potent antioxidant that might help improve the body’s natural sleep patterns.
Curbing cancer concerns
The National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD, estimates there will be more than 150,000 new cases and nearly 50,000 deaths from colon and rectal cancer in the United States in 2008, making it the second leading cause of death from cancer in the country. This has led medical experts to recommend a colonoscopy for most people age 50 and older. However, this is another disease where the colorful flavonoids may make a difference.
Laboratory experiments on rats and on human colon cancer cells points to the potential cancer-fighting properties of anthocyanins, as they appreciably slow the growth of colon cancer cells, notes Giusti, the lead author of a study presented at the 2007 national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston.
The researchers tested the effects of anthocyanin-rich extracts from a variety of fruits and vegetables, including grapes, radishes, purple corn, chokeberries, bilberries, purple carrots and elderberries, on human colon cancer cells grown in laboratory dishes. The researchers determined the amount of extract needed from each plant that would halve the growth of human colon cancer. They also found that adding an extra sugar or acid molecule to the anthocyanin compounds changed the extracts’ biological activity.
The results showed the amount of anthocyanin extract that reduced cancer cell growth by 50% varied among the plants. The purple-corn extract was the most potent, followed closely by chokeberry and bilberry extracts.
Related animal studies looked at rats induced with colon cancer cells fed a daily diet of anthocyanin extracts either from bilberries or chokeberries. Consuming the extracts reduced signs of colon tumors by 70% and 60%, respectively, vs. the control rats.
“All fruits and vegetables that are rich in anthocyanins have compounds that can slow down the growth of colon cancer cells, whether in experiments in laboratory dishes or inside the body,” Giusti says. “Very little anthocyanin is absorbed by the bloodstream. But a large proportion travels through the gastrointestinal tract, where those tissues absorb the compound.”
Giusti and her team of researchers is also looking at how these pigments interact with other compounds in foods, believing that these interactions can affect the food’s health benefits or those of the anthocyanin compounds themselves.
“There are more than 600 different anthocyanins found in nature,” she says. “While we know that the concentration of anthocyanins in the GI tract is ultimately affected by their chemical structures, we're just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding how the body absorbs and uses these different structures.”
Results for anthocyanins’ health benefits are intriguing and warrant further investigation. But many ingredients are available?from whole fruits in easy-to-use form, to antioxidant-rich extracts?that allow product developers to design foods and beverages that pack a powerful antioxidant punch. Products containing high levels of these antioxidants will surely generate interest from baby boomers who seek to hold on to their health.
Deb North, freelance food writer, marketing consultant, and recent graduate of LeCordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, can be emailed at [email protected].
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