J. Samuel Godber | 4/19/2005 10:29:24 PM
Scientists are uncovering evidence that components in our everyday foods can reduce risks of chronic diseases and promote improved health, according to Dr. Sam Godber, a researcher in the LSU AgCenter’s Food Science Department.
Dubbed functional foods, these natural components in foods are believed to be factors in reducing risks of cancer and other diseases. And as scientists identify them, the presence of functional components in foods may shift the fulcrum in a balanced diet.
Godber, who’s had a personal experience with colon cancer, has become increasingly interested in health-promoting factors in foods.
"The cancer brought into focus how food can affect your life," the LSU AgCenter scientist said.
Functional foods are defined as foods that provide health benefits beyond nutritional value and can affect a person’s susceptibility to contracting heart disease, cancer, diabetes or other chronic diseases.
Nutrients are essential, Godber says. The lack of these food components – vitamins, minerals, proteins, essential amino acids and essential fatty acids – can lead to a variety of acute diseases.
"They’re essential because they can be obtained only through diet," Godber said. "For example, the body can’t synthesize vitamin C, which is necessary for good health."
Although a lack of nutrients in the diet can have negative consequences, scientists believe other food components in addition to nutrients can prevent or help avoid getting chronic diseases.
"Essential nutrients prevent diseases," Godber said. "But the relationships between functional foods and diseases aren’t as clear-cut."
The researcher said scientists don’t exactly know what’s functional in foods, and sometimes interrelationships within food products may be as important as the individual components themselves.
"We can’t always see immediate effect," Godber said. "These components seem to have long-term effects."
Functional food research is primarily epidemiological, Godber said. Scientists look at the incidence and distribution of diseases and then assess the relationships between food components and health.
"Fruits and vegetables contain compounds that haven’t been totally defined in their role in the diet," Godber said.
Researchers are looking at flavonoids – a naturally occurring group of compounds that include many plant pigments – and phytosterols – solid alcohols present in the fatty tissues of plants.
In addition to evaluating apparent links between diets and diseases, researchers investigate how cancer cells react to food components in laboratories.
When they identify foods they believe may provide specific health benefits, researchers "purposefully introduce into diets what they’re seeing," Godber said. "Many of the foods not considered highly edible are turning out to be sources of some of the functional foods."
In the LSU AgCenter, researchers are looking at rice bran and bran oil, which contain several compounds that have been shown to lower serum cholesterol and potentially prevent certain types of cancers. Other researchers are working with muscadine grapes, which are high in flavonoids associated with blue and purple fruits.
The LSU AgCenter provided startup funds for these and other research projects in anticipation that the initial research could lead to additional funding from other sources.
"There are literally people in every department of the AgCenter working on functional foods," Godber said.