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Publication Describes Scientific Needs for Developing Health-Enhancing Foods

By Judy McBride
October 29, 1999

A new report could help scientists in the health, nutrition and plant sciences sharpen their focus on developing health-enhancing foods.

Plants make more than 100,000 compounds not essential to their growth. A number of these secondary compounds may play a role in reducing chronic or degenerative diseases in people. Lycopene in tomatoes, sulforphane in broccoli and genistein in soybeans are a few of the so-called phytonutrients that have captured headlines.

According to a recent survey, more than half of Americans eat a food or food component for a specific health benefit. But before plant scientists “beef up” fruits and vegetables with phytonutrients, they need to know which compounds are most beneficial and whether they work alone or synergistically--as evidence suggests they often do.

To give plant scientists definitive answers, nutrition and health scientists need better tools to measure phytonutrients' efficacy in reducing disease risk. The new 56-page report discusses these needs along with the state of phytonutrient science. “Forum and Workshop on Food, Phytonutrients, and Health” appears as a supplement to the September Nutrition Reviews. It is the proceedings of a 1998 workshop of plant and nutrition scientists, food technologists, and immunologists. The Agricultural Research Service, USDA's chief scientific arm, sponsored the workshop to stimulate collaboration among the disciplines.

According to the proceedings editors, former ARS national program leaders Carla R. Fjeld and Roger H. Lawson, one immediate boost to nutrition would be to use current technology to retard softening of fruits so they can be harvested and marketed at a more mature stage, when phytonutrient levels peak.

Scientists are already analyzing lines of broccoli and other produce for natural differences in phytonutrient levels. A wide difference means the vegetable can be bred for higher levels. And genetic engineering has produced a line of tomatoes with 10 times more lycopene.

For $35 (includes shipping and handling), the proceedings can be ordered from Allen Press: phone (800) 627-0629, fax (785) 843-1274,

Scientific contact: Kathleen C. Ellwood, ARS National Program Staff, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504- 4675, fax (301) 504-5467,