Researchers Get $2M to Study Health Benefits of Blueberries, Bananas, Spinach
Scientists at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute have received $2 million to support research aimed at improving the nutritional content of food products containing fruits and vegetables.
The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a nonprofit organization established in the 2014 Farm Bill with bipartisan congressional support, provided a $1 million grant for the work. The Dole Food Company, Standard Process Inc., and NCSU collectively matched the grant with a $1 million investment.
Researchers will study the micronutrients and bioactive phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables so food companies can deliver more healthful food products.
The work will be led by co-principal investigators Mario Ferruzzi, Ph.D., and Mary Ann Lila, Ph.D., at the Institute’s labs at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. Joining them as co-investigators from NCSU are Massimo Iorizzo, Ph.D., and Colin Kay, Ph.D.
“The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is proud to support research that will impact the health and wellbeing of consumers,” said Sally Rockey, executive director of the Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. “This project exemplifies how science can help us understand nutrition and optimize the health benefits we’re receiving from the foods we eat every day.”
Improving nutritional value for consumers
An estimated 87 percent of U.S. consumers don’t eat the recommended 4 1/2 cups of fruits and vegetables per day. The goal of this research is to improve the nutritional density of common fruits and vegetables in a range of consumer products.
Researchers said it is not about how many fruits and vegetables are on your plate but rather how the health benefits can be more effectively delivered to the body. Researchers will use genetic and phenotype mapping of blueberries, bananas and spinach to identify breeding practices that could enhance the nutritional content of these foods.
The different ways of preparing and processing food products affect the nutritional content of those products. Once researchers study the genetic attributes that improve nutritional quality, they will develop more accurate equivalencies between whole fruits or vegetables and products that contain them as an ingredient, such as snacks, beverages and prepared meals.
“It’s incredibly difficult to change consumer behavior and increase the number of servings consumed,” said Lila, “but by examining how the genetic makeup of a plant affects the density and availability of bioactive phytochemicals and micronutrients, we can possibly improve processing and ingredient formulation so that every serving that is consumed provides greater health benefit. This project represents a direct interface between plant genetics, food science and nutrition science that we believe will help close the gap between dietary guidance and actual fruit and vegetable consumption.”
Lila, a David H. Murdock Distinguished Professor at NCSU, has received four Event Support Grants from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in recent years to sponsor workshops and symposia for plant scientists.
For this project, “Closing the gap in delivery of fruit and vegetable benefits,” Lila and her team will partner with industry collaborators to access fruit and vegetable products for analysis and provide guidance for how to integrate recommendations into the food chain.
“The quality of our crops and their nutrient densities play a big role in supporting the health of our nation,” said John Troup, Ph.D., vice president of Standard Process. “This project will play an important role in advancing the health and wellness interests of consumers and practitioners over time and so represents an exciting program and collaboration we are proud to support and be a part of.”
The research is supported by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research through its Seeding Solutions grant program, which calls for bold, innovative, and potentially transformative research proposals in the Foundation’s seven “challenge areas.” This grant supports the Making My Plate Your Plate challenge area, which aims to increase the production and accessibility of nutritious foods.