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Healthier Foods Could Mean Tastier Foods

By Judy McBride
March 26, 1998

Mouth-watering, eye-pleasing fruit could be one payoff of research to improve the promising natural compounds in plant foods that appear to enhance health. Many of these compounds, called phytonutrients, are produced during the ripening process. The dilemma: how to allow fruit to ripen naturally on the tree or vine to get the maximum in phytonutrients while retarding the softening that occurs after the fruit is picked.

That's one research area suggested for exploration two weeks ago at Agricultural Research Service-sponsored workshops on food, phytonutrients and health. About 115 nutrition, health, plant and post-harvest scientists from ARS, universities and private industry met for three days to define research priorities and discuss the federal role.

The workshops were organized by Carla Fjeld and Roger Lawson of ARS's program staff. They said it will take interdisciplinary research teams to ensure that the U.S. food supply provides optimum nutrition.

News about potential benefits of broccoli, garlic, tea, soybeans and tomatoes has raised public awareness and increased research on phytonutrients. The U.S. may be on the threshold of the next agricultural revolution--not more products, but richer ones. But scientists worry that the publicity for phytonutrients is far ahead of the science.

Among the most pressing needs mentioned: Nutrition/health scientists need to decide which phytonutrients are most promising before plant scientists invest time and money in enriching crops or in identifying the cultivation, harvesting, handling and storage practices that conserve phytonutrients.

Nutrition/health scientists are blocked in identifying the important phytonutrients by a lack of sensitive assays to indicate small changes in risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer or other maladies. And all said they need accurate analytical methods for detecting phytonutrients.

Participants encouraged ARS to develop an Internet site to keep track of phytonutrients as they emerge--there are a dozen classes and thousands of individual compounds that may qualify--and to exchange information. Everyone agreed that new phytonutrient-enriched varieties must be as high-yielding, insect resistant and as tasty as today's foods. New varieties will do little good if nobody eats them!

Scientific contacts: Carla Fjeld, ARS National Program Leader for Human Nutrition, and Roger Lawson, ARS National Program Leader for Horticulture and Sugar, Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, Beltsville, Md. 20705. Fjeld phone (301) 504-6216, fax (301) 504-6231, Lawson phone (301) 504-5912, fax (301) 504-5467,

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