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USDA Conference Seeks to Boost Health-Enhancing Foods

By Judy McBride
March 9, 1998

WASHINGTON, March 9-- Enhancing the nutrition of the plants Americans eat was the focus of a U.S. Department of Agriculture forum today.

Scientists from agriculture, nutrition, and health, as well as industry representatives will spend the next three days in workshops discussing how advances in biotechnology, genetics and other sciences can be used to increase levels of natural, health-enhancing substances in plants, called "phytonutrients."

"There is strong scientific evidence that a food supply enriched in naturally occurring, healthy compounds could put a significant dent in the $200 billion annual cost of diet-related diseases," said Miley Gonzalez, USDA's Research, Education and Economics Under Secretary, who opened today's Food, Phytonutrients and Health forum and related workshops.

"Farmers have been providing the food to keep humanity alive for thousands of years," Gonzalez said. "Joint research and knowledge shared at these workshops will provide them with the opportunity to help people stay healthier."

Phytonutrients include the broad range of natural compounds found in soybeans, tomatoes, garlic and many other plant foods. They have been proven to protect against cardiovascular disease, cancer and general oxidative damage to tissues among other functions.

"We have a wealth of information on how phytonutrients help maintain a healthy body," said conference organizer and co-chair Carla R. Fjeld, who oversees nutrition research for USDA's Agricultural Research Service. "Yet we still have many gaps in our knowledge and we plan to identify and prioritize those gaps during these workshops."

Consumer interest in foods that may enhance health is high. Nine out of ten people believe they have very significant control over their own health, according to 1998 survey data from the International Food Information Council. Americans are interested in learning more about health benefits beyond basic nutrition--both for themselves and their children. They are searching for information in the media as well as from family, friends and health professionals. "Consumer interest in the relationship between food and health seems to be ahead of health professionals," said IFIC president Sylvia Rowe. She notes particular interest in phytonutrients among baby boomers.

Demand for better quality and more healthful food will continue to increase along with worldwide population increase. Some new products to help meet this increasing demand are already in the pipeline.

Robert Giaquinta, who manages biotechnology business development for E.I. DuPont, said DuPont will release a new soybean with a heart-healthier oil profile by the year 2000. Other new soybeans, he said, have improved protein profiles and lowered levels of indigestible carbohydrates. "DuPont is focusing on improving the nutritional quality of major crops, developing a whole new generation of specialized corn and soybean products that differ from today's commodity grains," Giaquinta said.

Scientific contact: Carla R. Fjeld, National Program Leader for Human Nutrition, Agricultural Research Service, USDA, Beltsville, Md. 20705, telephone (301) 504-6216, fax (301) 504-6231.

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