Not-so-super foods

Superfoods have long been the mainstay of the health industry, but now Kingston researchers are digging deeper into the effectiveness of health-promoting ‘super foods’ and their elixir-giving ilk.

While there’s no doubt foods such as broccoli, blueberries andDr Lucy Jones and Dr Elizabeth Opara whole grains contain polyphenols – compounds thathave antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties – the academic experts contend that little of these health-giving properties actually make it past the gut.

“Polyphenols may well work under laboratory conditions, but what needs to be established is how effective they are when consumed as part of a food. If they don’t actually get through the gut membrane and into the rest of the body, then they’re not a super food,” Dr Lucy Jones, associate dean of Education in SEC, said.

Lucy and SEC principal lecturer Dr Elizabeth Opara adapted a model developed in the early 1980s by US cancer research institute Sloane Kettering to see if and how medicinal Chinese herbs, known to limit the growth of cancer cells, were absorbed in the body. Known as the Caco-2, this new model mimics the action of the small intestine, the principal place where nutrients are taken up. 

“The Caco-2 is a single layer of cells grown in a laboratory environment that develops the characteristics and functions of the micro-villi, the tiny hair-like projections that aid efficient absorption found mainly in the small intestine,” Elizabeth said. “This allows us to look at what nutrients pass through into the body and could be used to test food supplements, drugs and foodstuffs. We found that while some compounds may have a local effect in the gut itself, in terms of the rest of the body the impact could be negligible.”

Products the team have tested so far include herbs such as parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme.

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