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If Food Is Our Medicine, Then Why Aren’t We All Healthy?

Mary Ann Lila, PhD | 2019

 Ask An Expert

Talk a little bit about your background and what you focus on in your research.

Dr. Lila: I am the director of the Plants for Human Health Institute here on North Carolina Research Campus. The Research Campus is a public-private enterprise with eight different universities on the same campus, plus private industry. I am the director of the North Carolina State operation, which is the Plants for Human Health Institute. Our mission statement is: “Leading the discovery and delivery of plant- based solutions to advance human health.” We work not only on the nutrients in plants—the components that build strong bones and teeth—but also on the phytoactive compounds in plants that may not have a recommended daily allowance but are known to interface with human therapeutic targets to combat chronic diseases or to improve human metabolism. These compounds are less well-characterized than classic nutrients but have had a vital role in human health throughout history.

You say food has changed. Would you describe your thoughts on that topic?

Dr. Lila: Probably, for any foods that we eat nowadays, it is not the same foods that our grandmother and grandfathers used to eat. That includes plants as well as meat.

So is your research geared toward figuring out what we can do to improve the nutritional value of food?

Dr. Lila: Right. We go back to the wild and look at what the phytochemical composition of the wild progenitors of our modern crop plants are. These phytoactive consistuents make fruits and vegetables health protective. Then, we figure out how we can maximize that phytochemical profile in commercially available products. There are very few wild plants we can get anymore without going out in the woods and foraging for ourselves. You can still get wild mushrooms, wild rice, wild-caught salmon and trout, and wild blueberries, but most of the other crops that are commercially available on any kind of scale are definitely cultivated.

In your recent research you have been able to isolate and harvest the phytoactive compounds in wild-grown food?

Dr. Lila: Yes. We found a method to concentrate the active principles, the phytoactive compounds, from any fruits or vegetables, whether from the wild or cultivated, and concentrate them on a protein matrix so that we have a granule, such as flour, that combines the protein and the polyphenols or the phytoactive compounds from plants for use as an ingredient to reverse some of the nutritional deficits we have in today’s foods. I am talking specifically about some research that strives to combat the gap between where we used to be in terms of ideal health, ideal diet, and where we are now.

We always recommend: Eat the fruit, eat the vegetable. But there are a lot of cases in today’s society where people don’t or won’t, or they need to get it in a lunchbox or a backpack or for travel and they need it in a bar. In cases like that, people can’t cook and they need it in a transportable format. This is where such an ingredient comes in and delivers a high bang for the buck.

Does your research indicate that these additives would assist in the taste and the flavor of the product or is it solely a nutritional additive?

Dr. Lila: It actually does both. Our objective was to get the phytoactive compound in a concentrated format into the diet, like broccoli glucosinolates. Nobody wants to eat two cups of broccoli; but if you can get it in two grams of ingredient to mix into something else, all the better. Foods really are the resource for a lot of health-protective compounds that we now look to drugs for and we can get them in pharmacologically relevant doses by concentrating them in some applications.

Can we get more phytonutrients out of organic plants verses cultivated crops?

Dr. Lila: The side-by-side, highly-powered studies that could demonstrate a conclusive health or nutrient benefit have never been done, so I can’t say that. But logic would dictate that yes, because a plant that is grown using integrated pest management or organically with lesser chemical input will tend to have more of the environmental stresses that a plant in the wild encounters and, therefore, will accumulate phytoactive compounds like a plant in the wild does. Plants accumulate these compounds because they’re under stress— because they are fighting to survive in an environment full of stresses. When we grow a plant with integrated pest management or organically, we are subjecting that plant to more stresses. The yield may not be as high as a massive, intensively cultivated field in California with lots of chemical inputs, but the quality of the plant material will be higher.

Would it be correct to say that locally grown berries are significantly better nutritionally than blueberries from a factory farm?

Dr. Lila: You can’t say that because so much depends on the post-harvest handling of those berries. The amount of time between picking in the field and your plate has a huge impact on the levels of phytoactive compounds. So, actually, the best way to get the maximum, 100 percent of the phytoactive compounds is to have that berry picked in the field and quick-frozen right there, close to the field, like they do for wild blueberries and buy them frozen because that is going to have everything in it. Those same blueberries in a fresh clam shell in the produce isle that may have been sitting there for several days are not going to have anything close to the phytoactive compounds of the frozen berry that was frozen that same day. It’s just how it is.

Most people would think that the farmers’ market would be the best place to purchase the berries.

Dr. Lila: Yes, but mostly the farmers will—at least the farmers’ markets I go to—say, “Picked yesterday” or “picked at 4 am today.”

What is the take away of your presentation?

Dr. Lila: The food that we obtain from plants should not be evaluated solely for nutritional or caloric value, but with the goal of discerning the preventative, curative, or therapeutic properties hidden in every bite. While plants have long been recognized as having pharmaceutical properties, the active plant compounds are often synthesized and reduced to a pill. With greater understanding of the medicinal properties in edible foods, individuals may, one day, be prescribed a ration of curative foods to combat diseases, rather than a dosage of drugs.


Mary Ann Lila, PhD, a David H. Murdock Distinguished Professor, is the director of North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute on the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. Dr. Lila, who was named to direct the institute in 2008, is an internationally known scientist. Her research focuses on three areas: studying health- enhancing compounds in blueberries and other fruits, vegetables, and herbs, isolating phytochemicals that counteract malaria, and working with scientists and students from around the world to explore natural products for biomedical use.

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