Prevention on a Plate ; Health-conscious Americans Are Feasting on a Crop of Trendy Foods

The State Journal-Register Springfield, IL

06-28-06

As the old saw goes, an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

These days, a new crop of exotic foods and drinks is overshadowing the familiar apple as the best way to avoid ailments ranging from the effects of stress to cancer and heart disease.

Acai, goji berries, aged garlic, holy basil (tulsi) and yerba mate, all loaded with antioxidants, are the new darlings of the preventive health-foods pantry.

As the first wave of baby boomers begins to turn 60, many are hoping that what they eat and drink can help them avoid the ailments that plagued their parents' generation.

Their desire to look and feel young as long as possible and their interest in organic and naturally raised products are fueling a boom in foods and drinks once outside the typical American's dietary palette.

"I think people are trying to use Mother Nature's fruits to stay healthy and almost as an alternative medicine or self-prescribed medicine," said Chris Cuvelier, president of the company that makes Zola Acai, which he calls a power juice beverage.

Acai, the purple fruit of a Brazilian palm that's eaten for energy in its native land, is the hottest among the new crop of super foods, showing up in everything from sorbets and drinks to capsules and concentrates.

Proponents brag about its content of antioxidants and omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids. A 2004 University of Florida study established that acai has active antioxidant compounds. But few studies have been done on whether these compounds have protective effects.

On the other hand, aged garlic, an odorless extract derived from the bulb that gives scampi its punch, is a reliable standard in the alternative medicine cabinet, said Mark Blumenthal, founder of the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas, that conducts research and educates consumers about medicinal plants.

Aged garlic and its active ingredient, allacin, have been the subject of more than 400 scientific studies and clinical trials. One study conducted at the Harbor University of California Los Angeles Medical Center found that cardiac patients who took Kyolic aged garlic extract had 65 percent less coronary plaque formation and lower cholesterol levels than the control group.

Acai and aged garlic, along with holy basil, yerba mate and goji berries, are part of a growing category of functional foods: natural and manufactured items consumed because of health benefits that go beyond satisfying hunger and thirst.

The U.S. functional food market was estimated at $20.2 billion in 2002 and is expected to grow to $37.7 billion by 2007, according to a report by the Business Communication Co.

While the term "functional foods" is marketing-speak, there are plenty of things people consume for reasons that have nothing to do with nourishment, said Blumenthal. An obvious one is coffee, which people drink for that jolt of caffeine in the morning; so are prunes, as your grandmother can attest.

Herbal tradition

Foods such as holy basil and goji berries, which seem unusual to Americans, are as familiar as prunes and coffee to people in India and Tibet, where both have been used for centuries in herbal medicines.

"The line between food and medicine is very blurry in many countries," Blumenthal said. "We're seeing a merging of health and natural products industries with the gourmet industry, where people want natural things that provide health benefits."

For people unfamiliar with these foods, it can be difficult to sort out the facts. One source of information is the American Botanical Council Web site, American Botanical Council. Scientific studies can be found at Entrez PubMed
.

Some of these foods have huge bodies of scientific literature and clinical research proving their effectiveness. Others are folk remedies in their native lands, where their effectiveness is supported mostly by anecdotal evidence and animal studies.

Tulsi, or holy basil, is revered as a sacred herb in India, where it has been used in medicinal preparations for 5,000 years.

Ethanol, a component of holy basil, was shown to lower blood levels of stress hormones in rats in a study done in India. Another study found that feeding diabetic rats holy basil reduced blood sugar and body and blood fat levels.

Goji berries are surrounded by anecdotal tales, including one of a well under a goji vine that had youth-restoring waters. The berries have amino acids, protein, vitamins and a sweet, tangy taste, which prompted Clif Bar to include them in its lemon, vanilla & cashew bar, part of the Nectar line of organic fruit and nut bars.

"They were traditionally thought of as a strength-building and longevity food," Tara DelloIacono Thies, registered dietitian for Clif Bar and LUNA, said of goji berries. "When we look more analytically, they are high in antioxidants like vitamin A and C."

Goji berries are an effective source of antioxidants, according to a 2004 study from Taiwan's Kaohshing Medical University. Two studies done at Chinese universities and published in 2005 found that components in goji berries improved insulin resistance and inhibited the growth of liver cancer cells.

Coffee competitor

Yerba mate, the leaves of a rain-forest tree, first appeared in the United States about 20 years ago, but now it is becoming trendy. The upscale tea chain Te Vana carries a couple of flavored mates, and local Pannikins sell a chai mate mixed with cloves and cardamom pods.

Yerba mate is a staple beverage in Argentina, where it is preferred 7 to 1 over coffee, said David Karr, a founder of Guayaki, a line of mate teas and drinks. "What it comes down to is, people are looking for a healthy source of caffeine," Karr said. "Yerba mate is the heathiest source in that it has naturally 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids and antioxidants."

An Emory University study published in 2005 found that yerba mate contained natural proteasome inhibitors that may help in the treatment of cancer. A compound in mate was found to be more potent than green tea or red wine in combating nitrosative stress, which breaks down DNA and plays a role in neurological disorders.

T.J. McIntyre, a founder of Pixie Mate, said it's encouraging that even big health-maintenance organizations are pushing the benefits of preventive measures.

"Food manufacturers are seeing an opportunity in trying to get people to take responsibility for their own health and wellness," McIntyre said. "The idea is, you don't wait until you're sick. You maintain an exercise routine and eat products that are healthy for your body."