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Research identifies new class of phytoalexin-enriched functional foods.

Many foods are derived from plants that naturally contain compounds beneficial to human health and which are believed to prevent certain diseases. Plants containing phytochemicals with potent anticancer and antioxidant activity have spurred the development of many new functional foods that target health problems.

More recent research into the use of plant phytoalexins as nutritional components has opened up a new area of food science. Phytoalexins are produced by plants in response to stress or fungal attack and are often antifungal or antibacterial compounds. Although phytoalexins have been investigated for their possible role in plant defense mechanisms, until recently they have gone unexplored as nutritional components in human foods.

These underutilized compounds may possess key beneficial properties, including antioxidant activity, anti-inflammation activity, cholesterol-lowering ability and anticancer activity. For these reasons, phytoalexin-enriched foods would be classified as functional foods. They would offer the consumer health-enhanced food choices and would also open new applications for many underutilized crops that produce phytoalexins.

USDA-ARS researchers indicate that stressing plants to use their natural defense mechanisms can cause them to produce higher levels of beneficial phytoalexins. The investigators are proposing the creation of a new area within functional food research--phytoalexin-enriched foods--that utilizes induced plant compounds or phytoalexins created during the pre- or post-harvest period.

The production of phytoalexins would involve using biotic and abiotic elicitors--substances that elicit the production of the phytoalexins--as well as other stress-inducing techniques. These might include organic cultivation, which supposedly leaves plants more susceptible to pathogen and insect attack. This may subsequently lead to increases in secondary metabolites as the plants defend themselves. Another technique might be to externally challenge post-harvested plants, such as grapes, with UV radiation, which would lead to an increase in the levels of resveratrol, a phytoalexin, in grapes.

Further information. Stephen Boue, USDA-ARS Southern Regional Research Center, Food and Feed Safety Research, Room 2119, 1100 Robert E. Lee Blvd., Building 001, New Orleans, LA 70124; phone: 504-286-4346; fax: 504-286-4419; email:
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Publication:Emerging Food R&D Report
Date:May 1, 2009
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