by Lynn Kerrigan
Perhaps he had a vision. Perhaps he was wise beyond his years and before his time. He'd never heard of phytochemicals or the term functional foods, when 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates said, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food."
Indeed, food and medicine are no longer separate topics, and the lines between them will continue to blur as science continues to study food components. Recent knowledge about compounds in common foods has the medical, nutritional and food communities standing on their heads.
When nutrition research shifted its focus from prevention of nutritional deficiencies to prevention of chronic disease—startling revelations emerged. It's now an accepted fact that eating a healthful diet can eradicate or prevent the onset of thousands upon thousands of new cases of disease each year. Today we know that many common foods offer powerful health benefits. The excitement electrifying the medical, nutritional and food communities is only natural.
One food element that has been scrutinized in a variety of studies is the phytochemical—literately translated "plant chemical." Phytochemicals are biologically active components that impart health benefits beyond basic nutrition. This month we'll take a look at one of these: lycopene.
Lycopene, like its better-known cousin, beta-carotene, is a carotenoid, a family of natural pigments that are also powerful antioxidants. Carotenoids are the substances that give fruits and vegetables their color. For instance beta-carotene is what makes carrots orange. Lycopene makes tomatoes red.
Several studies, including research at the Harvard Medical School indicate that lycopene is linked to preventing cancer of the cervix, prostate, lungs and digestive tract. How do lycopene and other antioxidants protect against disease?
It may help to first understand what causes our bodies to wear down—thus making us more susceptible to disease. Oxidation is often the culprit. You've provably heard the term "free radicals." These are our body's own molecules—call them bad molecules—that attack the genetic material in our cells. They cause what is known as "oxidative stress." Oxidation of metal causes rust —and that's a good analogy. Free radicals cause rusting of body parts that in turn causes rapid aging, joint deterioration and increased risk of cancer, heart disease and other illness.
Lycopene and other antioxidants found in a variety of fruits and vegetables are natural bodyguards. They cut free radicals off at the pass—hinder their march to damage the body's cells
Lycopene is abundant in tomatoes, ruby red grapefruit and red peppers. And forget what some people say about "raw being better." This antioxidant is absorbed more easily from processed or cooked tomatoes. That's why H.J. Heinz is so happy and President Reagan proposed that ketchup be classified as a vegetable in school lunch programs. Heinz, the ketchup manufacturer is just one of many food purveyors looking to ride the coattails of the phytochemical buzz.
Bone up on your phytochemical IQ. Start on the Internet. Visit http://www.lycopene.org, a new, consumer friendly web site that documents research from several studies.
Some people vow to quit smoking. Others swear off chocolate, promise to jog 15 miles a week, take the stairs instead of the elevator. Stop swearing. Start listening better. Read a book a month. Become more assertive. Become less impatient.
The New Year is always a good time to "turn over a new leaf" and if you're seeking something simple to do that will significantly change your life, here it is:
It's scientifically proven. It's fact. Eating more fruits and vegetables may prevent or stall the onset of disease and delay the effects of aging. If there's only one thing you change about your lifestyle in 1999, let it be this: Eat plants in abundance every single day of your life. Not only will your life be enhanced with more energy, better health and less illness but it may last a lot longer.
In 12 fleeting months the global community will welcome the dawn of a new era—the next century of human life. What will this century look like? What inroads will science make in curing cancer, extending life and feeding the world's burgeoning population?
Many global citizens are approaching this once in a lifetime passage with extreme trepidation—preparing for the worse by stocking up on water and food as well as moving lock, stock and barrel to the country, fearing mass hysteria. Just as many people feel we won't see the light of day on 1/1/00—marking the date as the apocalypse. But the majorities look forward to this passage with optimism—hoping that hunger and disease will become endangered species and "peace on earth" will be reality, not just a phrase uttered during holiday times.
Already science is poised to place food on our table that's been genetically altered—like corn that's resistant to insects and herbicide tolerant wheat or soybeans. Major food manufacturers are pumping nutrients into foods to make them more appealing to health conscious consumers. Super-foods, functional foods, nutraceuticals, medical foods, phytochemicals, designer foods and genetic engineered foods have all broken through the horizon. What's next?
Starting next month we'll begin discussing the future of food. We'll talk about organic food, irradiation, genetic manipulation, and how food impacts world health. We'll discuss world hunger and what science is doing to alleviate it. We'll touch on fake foods—like man-made fat and sweeteners and what impact they have on human health. We'll take a look at the farmer and what impact science will have on his crops and his survival. Some of the discussions will scare you. Some will make your jaw slack in wonder.
Current Culinary Sleuth Archive
This page created January 1999
Copyright © 1998-2001, Lynn Kerrigan. No portion of this article may be reproduced for publication without express, written permission of the author.
This page modified February 2007
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