Forty years ago, a person who dined regularly on steak and potatoes would have been considered the picture of health.
Today a healthy plate needs a more colorful palette: blueberries rich in anthocyanin, red peppers loaded with lycopene, and salmon full of fatty acids that help reduce the risk of cancer.
The crunchy, brightly colored vegetables sitting on cocktail-party vegetable platters are now regarded as nutritional heavyweights. They're rich in carotenoids -- nutrients that contain powerful antioxidants and strengthen the immune system.
It's been less than a century since researchers discovered the benefits of antioxidants such as vitamin C. But the next century of nutrition research will focus less on bottled vitamin supplements and more on the fruits and vegetables that provide nutrients naturally.
We know more now about the phytochemicals -- chemicals found in plant life -- that make certain foods healthy. Health-conscious consumers have created a demand for "superfoods," ranging from calcium-enriched orange juice to echinacea-laced soft drinks.
Food With a Purpose
One of the hottest sectors of food manufacturing today is "functional foods" -- foods that have been fortified with natural herbs and vitamins to make them more healthful. One manufacturer has already introduced a red wine pill made from the skins of merlot grapes, which could help counteract the damaging effects of cholesterol and keep blood vessels healthy.
Some discoveries are coming from unlikely places. Though you might find grazing in a pasture less than appetizing, researchers at the Linus Pauling Institute in Oregon are looking at the health benefits -- for humans, not cows -- of chlorophyllin, a pigment that gives grass its green color. George Bailey, PhD, a researcher and professor of food toxicology at Oregon State University, is studying 200 residents of China, hoping to learn whether a steady diet of chlorophyllin will help protect them against liver cancer.
Or consider the yucca and quillaja plants of the desert. For years these saponin-rich plants were fed to farm animals because of their "antistink" qualities. Now the soft drink industry is interested in the stable foam produced by their extract, according to Peter Cheeke, PhD, a professor of comparative nutrition at Oregon State University and a researcher at the Linus Pauling Institute. The research has produced a surprising development: There are indications that saponin may help lower cholesterol. Yucca also contains some of the same nutrients, believed to lower cholesterol, that are found in red wine.
Making it Personal
Not everyone benefits equally from these "healthy" foods. Doctors know that megadoses of vitamins such as E and C can help ward off heart disease and cancer, but they don't know why some individuals respond more than others. Now DNA researchers are identifying the genetic types most likely to benefit from extra doses of specific nutrients. Just as blood tests can show an individual's vulnerability to disease, the researchers say they will some day be able to identify the exact daily doses we need, and determine which individuals will benefit most from certain vitamin supplements.
This capability is not as far off as it seems, says Jeffrey Blumberg, of Tufts University's School of Nutrition. "In the future, we'll be able to remove a white blood cell, look at your DNA and say, you as an individual need X requirements to delay the onset of diabetes."
In the year 2000, scientists will meet at a National Institutes of Health conference to discuss research that will someday help doctors administer a test to determine a patient's nutrition deficiencies -- much the same way that blood tests now identify anemic patients. Cyndi Thomson, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says that such a test could help identify exactly which nutrients an individual needs to ward off disease. "Nobody wants to waste vitamins. What if you don't need vitamin X? What you might find is a certain nutrient that keeps the gene silent. We want to find out what is the amount that will prevent disease."
Research has already shown that perceptions of healthful recommended daily allowances have changed over the decades. In 1992, public health officials increased the folic acid recommendation from 180 micrograms to 400 micrograms when they discovered that this B vitamin could prevent birth defects.
But we'll never really have a magic pill or herbal cure-all, says Thomson. "No one really wants to take a pill." Her bottom line? "Eat your vegetables."