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Every Meal Is an Opportunity to Improve Health

BY: Toni Tarver
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vegetables and fruitsFor awhile, food manufacturers have been isolating one or two bioactive compounds such as antioxidants or phytonutrients and adding them to food products to increase their nutritional profile and health benefits. However, research in recent years suggests that the isolated-compound approach is misguided. During session 107, “Bioactive Compounds and Functional Foods in Chronic Disease and Healthy Aging,” speakers discussed the benefits of consuming whole foods that naturally contain bioactive compounds. Rui Hai Liu of Cornell University said that the best way to target chronic disease is to eat whole foods containing bioactive compounds. This is because bioactive plant compounds scavenge free radicals, induce apoptosis in cancer cells, prevent angiogenesis, and reduce oxidative stress. Liu’s research focuses on the bioactive compounds in apples. It seems the adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is not without merit. His findings suggest that whole apples have potent anticancer activity, inhibiting the proliferation of breast cancer cells and tumor formation. Apples also appear to have anti-aging effects, blocking absorption of ultraviolet radiation and preventing oxidative stress.

Steven Schwartz of The Ohio State University (OSU) discussed how bioactive compounds in whole tomatoes also have anticancer effects. The intake of tomato products has an inverse relationship with the incidence of prostate cancer. Schwartz and a team of researchers at OSU have created a tomato-soy juice and other tomato-based products that they are using in clinical trials for prostate cancer. Schwartz pointed out that maximum absorption of the bioactive compounds in tomatoes (carotenoids, flavonoids, phenolic acids, alkaloids, and unidentified components) occurs only when tomatoes are cooked and combined with a high-lipid food (e.g., olive oil or avocado). This revelation illustrates the importance of including healthy fats in the diet. Thus, to derive the full benefits of a salad made with foods containing bioactive compounds, Schwartz suggests pairing it with full-fat dressing rather than reduced-fat or no-fat dressing.

Because there is a variety of components in plant foods that have biological activity, every meal is an opportunity to ingest bioactive compounds that impart health benefits, according to Britt Burton-Freeman of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Burton-Freeman’s research focuses on the nutritional chemistry of various plant compounds, particularly anthocyanins, and their bioavailability. Berries contain the highest concentration of anthocyanins, so Burton-Freeman’s research involves studying the effects berries have on oxidative stress, inflammation, and chronic disease. She highlighted studies indicating that strawberries and blueberries in the diet of individuals with insulin resistance improved their insulin sensitivity. Insulin keeps blood sugar levels under control, so elevated insulin levels increase the risk of developing chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

By all accounts, the evidence is clear: Bioactive compounds in plant foods can impact multiple biological systems to provide long-term health benefits. Thus, eating several plant foods a day can indeed keep poor health at bay.

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