Many foods contain biofactors – biologically active compounds – that may prevent and treat illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to new studies published in the July-September 2011 issue of the University of California’s California Agriculture journal.

The Center for Health and Nutrition Research (CHNR) at UC Davis received $6.4 million from the Vitamin Case Consumer Settlement fund, which was used to fund 33 research projects. Several are published in a special issue of California Agriculture, "Food as medicine: Can what we eat help cure what ails us?" To read the articles and issue in full, go to: http://ucanr.org/repository/CAO/issue.cfm?volume=65&issue=3.

"CHNR pilot projects focused on how micronutrients, biofactors and phytochemicals can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases," said CHNR administrator Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr, a UC Davis Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist. "For example, the omega-3 fatty acids in foods such as walnuts, flax seeds and salmon may protect against a range of diseases associated with inflammation, including asthma and the hypertension-related inflammation that can damage kidneys."

CHNR research also reviewed science related to soybeans, which contain estrogenlike compounds called isoflavones that may protect against heart disease. Likewise, phytochemicals in olive oil and red wine may protect against heart disease and diabetes.

The traditional Mediterranean diet – mostly vegetables, fruits and whole grains, with moderate amounts of nuts, olive oil and red wine – is associated with lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. The Mediterranean diet is rich in phytochemicals that boost mitochondria (organelles in our cells that convert glucose and other nutrients into energy) and so are known as mitochondrial nutrients. When mitochondria are scarce or have genetic defects that keep them from working properly, this can generate toxic metabolites and damaging free radicals.

"Mitochondria are central to aging," said UC Irvine biochemist Edward Sharman. "Improving their function may modulate or delay the onset of diseases related to aging, such as type 2 diabetes and age-related macular degeneration [vision decline]." Mitochondrial dysfunction also plays a key role in chronic illnesses such as heart disease and the inflammation contributing to arthritis, type 2 diabetes and other diseases.

One of the most promising mitochondrial nutrients is hydroxytyrosol, which is abundant in the extra-virgin olive oil that provides most of the fat in the traditional Mediterranean diet. Moreover, the red wine that is integral to the Mediterranean diet also increases hydroxytyrosol levels, even though it contains relatively small amounts.

"Another promising mitochondrial nutrient is pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ), which was first found in nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria and is now known to be ubiquitous," said CHNR co-director Robert Rucker, UC Davis nutrition professor. While Escherichia coli and other common gut bacteria do not make PQQ, soil bacteria provide it to plants in our diet. Good sources include fermented soybeans, wine, tea and cocoa.

Rucker and his colleagues found that depriving rats of PQQ compromised their immune systems and retarded their growth and reproductive rates. In contrast, restoring PQQ to their diets reversed these effects and returned them to good health. Moreover, PQQ stimulated nerve growth and counteracted aging in cultured cells.

"Understanding what biofactors do in our bodies could ultimately lead to personalized medicine, where nutrition-based treatments are tailored to the particulars of each person’s biochemistry," Rucker says.

Also reported in the July-September 2011 issue of California Agriculture:

• In the northern Sacramento Valley, blue oak stumps sprouted vigorously after harvesting; models were developed to help predict resprouting and growth rates to aid in oak regeneration.
• The increased use of insecticides to control thrips that spread an onion disease appears to be limiting the pollination of seed onions by honey bees, dramatically reducing yields.

With the July-September 2011 issue, California Agriculture is launching its first E-Edition, the publication of timely peer-reviewed research online (but not printed in the journal). The E-Edition includes:

• A review of risks that transgenic rice – which is commercially available but not grown in California – would pose to the sales of California rice in global markets, and the impact of the California Rice Certification Act.
• A study that shows switchgrass, a native Northern American grass, performed well in California field trials, and is promising as a high-yielding crop for biofuels.