En route to the pharmacy aisle in your local supermarket, you’ll likely walk right past an especially colorful area of the store that holds a medicine cabinet’s worth of healing potential—the produce section.
he science behind why more strawberries or raspberries might mean fewer cholesterol-lowering statins or glucose-controlling medications is the focus of Illinois Tech’s Clinical Nutrition Research Center.
“We’re trying to keep people from needing medications using dietary approaches,” says center director, Britt Burton-Freeman, sitting outside one of the metabolic kitchens where she and fellow center researchers prepare and serve test meals for study participants. The center studies bioactive compounds delivered through plant foods that target cells in the body responsible for inflammation, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems. Unlike essential nutrients, bioactive compounds are not required for life, but growing evidence indicates they are closely linked with improved health and disease risk reduction.
Many of the center’s studies profile the biological qualities of red, blue, and purple fruits. These fruits contain a unique chemical signature of bioactive pigment compounds called anthocyanins, along with other phenolic compounds known for their antioxidant properties. However, the center’s work has demonstrated that these compounds do much more than reduce oxidative stress in humans; they work to reduce inflammation and insulin resistance, both of which have roots in modern-day chronic diseases.
The center also has studied potatoes, grape seeds, and other produce [see sidebar]. Wild blueberries, the topic of a current study, illustrate how mind and body are interconnected through metabolic stress/balance. Blueberries are known for their effects on cognition in older adults, but research at Illinois Tech is analyzing earlier periods in life to study the relationship between metabolic abnormalities and inflammation in middle age and how they impact brain function. The role of wild blueberry bioactives in moderating these conditions could inform dietary approaches important for reducing age-related cognitive impairments and even late-life Alzheimer’s disease, which develops over decades starting in mid-life.
“We started thinking about how cognitive impairments might start early on, particularly as people start to gain weight and become pre-diabetic,” says Burton-Freeman, who has a Ph.D. in nutritional biology and did her post-doctoral work in internal medicine. She also worked previously in the biotech industry and as a research professor at the University of California before joining Illinois Tech in 2007 and launching the center in 2008.
“If these unique compounds in wild blueberries can improve inflammation status and metabolic disturbances, especially how insulin works in the main body, we would expect improved brain function,” she says. “Many people don’t think about obesity or diabetes impacting their brain performance, but more and more we are finding they are linked.”
This wild blueberry study—among 13 studies that Burton-Freeman and her fellow researchers will present at the Experimental Biology conference in Chicago this April—observed metabolic and cognitive performance benefits among the participants.
“It’s an exciting time for food and health research: People want to know more about their food. They want to know what food to eat and how it does what it claims. Consumers are listening, and they are demanding quality scientific evidence,” says Burton-Freeman.