By Philip Trum
It’s no secret that eating well plays a big role in health. But the past 15 years has seen a dramatic increase in the research field of nutraceuticals, which looks at exactly what it is about certain foods that makes them able to stave off, or even reverse, disease. Here are four wonder foods that McGill nutraceutical researchers are currently exploring.
Certain isoflavone compounds, such as genistein, are linked to preventing breast cancer. Soybeans are loaded with them — except when they’re not. “A farmer might grow soy-beans one year and get a certain concentration of isoflavones,” says Philippe Seguin, chair of the Department of Plant Science. “The next year, he might grow the same beans but get a much lower concentration. It’s a big issue.” Vendors, of course, want to be guaranteed a certain concentration of isoflavones, whether they’re selling soy supplements (widely marketed as menopause symptom relief ) or soy-based foods like tofu. To that end, Seguin is studying the relationship between environmental conditions (such as air temperature or soil moisture) and agricultural practices (such as use of fertilizer) and the resulting isoflavone concentration in crops. “Our ultimate goal is to be able to model, in advance, what the concentration will be based on, say, the air temperature being at a certain level when the crops are in the flowering stage.” All the better for the health-conscious eater who wants to load up on isoflavones — and not get stuck with, well, just a handful of beans.
Kefir isn’t all the rage in Canada — not yet, at least — but the fermented beverage has been popular in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia for a long time: Marco Polo encountered the drink during his 13th-century travels, calling it “wonderfully tonic and nutritious, and it is said that it has cured many persons threatened with consumption.” Professor Stan Kubow, associate professor in McGill’s School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, says that the fermentation of soy using kefir is a particularly potent health-promoting combination. The Kubow lab’s open-label studies (that’s when the subject knows what they’re taking) show, over and over, that soya kefir is quite the pain reliever for people suffering from fibromyalgia, a long-term condition that produces bodywide pain and tenderness, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Soy already contains opioid peptides derived from soy proteins, and Kubow thinks fermentation “creates a super-soy product, in which a lot of the bioactive components become more bioavailable and are absorbed to greater effect.” (Soy kefir is also showing significant mood- and energy-enhancing effects.) The researchers suspect kefir’s particular form of fermentation — driven not by a single bacteria but by a symbiotic matrix of several bacteria — may be at the root of its remarkable health benefits. They’ve completed studies, published in the Journal of Medicinal Food and in Breast Cancer – Current And Alternative Therapeutic Modalities, that compared kefir-fermented milk to that fermented by the lone bacteria commonly used to make yogurt. “The studies showed much more potent anti-cancer properties in the kefir,” reports Kubow. “What we think is happening is that the various bacteria act together to create a synergy of bioactive compounds.” And when it comes to painbeating bacteria, there seems to be strength in numbers.
Whey: not just for nursery rhyme breakfasts any more. Stan Kubow and various collaborators have been running liquid whey through an industrial-strength hyperbaric pressure processor that packs more punch than the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The result is a product that corrects a stressed body’s ability to utilize proteins to combat illness. Kubow has conducted studies with Dr. Larry Lands (Montreal Children’s Hospital), Dr. Franco Carli (Montreal General Hospital) and Linda Wykes (School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition), which found the pressurized whey seems to be particularly effective in helping people recover from diseases involving excessive inflammation. The researchers suspect that, because the process changes the structures of whey proteins, their peptides can be more readily absorbed — which helps diminish free radicals. (Free radicals are implicated as a risk factor for developing disease.) Pressurized whey still isn’t available commercially. “That’s something we’re looking into,” says Kubow. “My colleagues and I have shown there is great potential for considerable benefits for cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, irritable bowel syndrome and post-surgery recovery. There’s a real range of diseases that we think would benefit from pressurized whey.”
“Do you want fries with that?” That’s a discussion best kept between you and your bathroom scale. But if you do indulge in that crispy, golden deliciousness, you might as well get as many nutrients out of it as you can. Vijaya Raghavan, professor in the Department of Bioresource Engineering, is exploring new processes for extracting good nutrients from food-processing waste products, like vegetable and fruit skins. Those skins — particularly potato skins — are loaded with nutrients that fight microbes, carcinogens and cholesterol — yet the Canadian food industry rejects more than two million tonnes of skin each year. Working with Stan Kubow and Danielle Donnelly (Department of Plant Science), Raghavan has been experimenting with microwave-assisted extraction techniques that quickly and selectively dislodge the useful nutrients, minerals and vitamins from the bio-matrix. The nutrient-loaded extract could then be sold as a stand-alone supplement (Valérie Orsat, also in Bioresource Engineering, is working on a spray-drying technique to encapsulate sensitive bioactive compounds such as vitamins and phytonutrients to maintain their viability), or added back into foods — even the same French fries or potato chips that lost their skins in the first place.