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You Are What You Eat: Functional Foods’ Role in Improving Health

Posted by Jennifer Martin, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Research and Science
Mar 19, 2013

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA's rich science and research profile.

For a lot of people, the food we eat gives us energy to get through the day. However, it’s important to realize that food is more than just calories; there are compounds in food that are essential to strengthening our bodies and improving our health. Food is functional. These compounds may not be essential for normal functioning in humans, but they do have a beneficial effect on disease prevention and general health.

Scientists at Ohio State University (OSU) have conducted research on two foods that could aid in the fight against prostate cancer: tomatoes and soy. With support from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Center for Advanced Functional Foods Research and Entrepreneurship at OSU has developed a cancer-fighting tomato soy juice.

Tomatoes are high in lycopene, an antioxidant that can break down oxygen free radicals in the body that can damage DNA and lead to cancer. Soy contains hormone-like substances shown to slow prostate cancer growth in laboratory animals. Additionally, Asian men, who consume diets rich in soy, are known to have the lowest rates of prostate cancer in the world.

The process is a little more complicated than just combining the two ingredients together. The OSU team did research to make sure the lycopene and soy would be best used by the body. These studies showed that lycopene molecules in tomatoes that are combined with fat and subjected to intense heat during processing are restructured in a way that appears to ease their transport into the bloodstream and tissue. And clinical trials at OSU’s Comprehensive Cancer Center showed that people had a 55 percent increase in total lycopene absorption after eating the specially processed sauce than they did after eating regular red tomato sauce.

The development of the tomato juice went through many rounds to get a product that was palatable to people’s tastes. Earlier versions needed to be corrected for color, consistency, texture and flavor. Currently the juice is being used in clinical trials to see the effect it has on decreasing prostate cancer.

OSU’s functional foods research has also developed a soy-based bread used to fight against cancer. Additionally, they are studying the health benefits of compounds in berries that may lower the risk of heart attacks in women, remove plaque buildup in the mouth and reduce inflammation.

On National Ag Day, USDA's Research, Education, and Economics science agencies are sharing four blogs highlighting the importance of innovation and research to food and agriculture. To see more, click here.

Category/Topic: Research and Science