Scientists in the federal government have been busy breeding better varieties of fruits and rice, and consumers, retailers and manufacturers could all benefit from a few recent breakthroughs.
The Agricultural Research Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, currently is conducting about 1,000 research projects in more than 100 locations throughout the United States, focused on health, nutrition and resource and land management. Their work has led to nutritional improvements in cranberries, blueberries and rice.
ARS research plant pathologist James Polashock and colleagues recently bred a new variety of cranberry.
"Basically, this cranberry has a particular type of anthocyanin that has higher antioxidant value and greater bioavailability," Polashock said.
By cross-breeding the typical American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) with the Alaskan cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus), the researchers bound more anthocyanins to sugars in the fruit, resulting in increased absorption of the antioxidants during digestion.
Consumers could benefit whether eating the berries fresh or as ingredients in processed or functional foods.
"Theoretically, you could destroy the anthocyanins with too much heat during processing," Polashock said, "but using ingredients such as dried cranberries should be fine."
New varieties of blueberries, better suited for both early and late harvesting in the Gulf Coast region, were introduced by research geneticist Stephen Stringer and colleagues.
Dixieblue and Gupton are Southern highbush blueberries that ripen in early season and provide blueberry growers the opportunity to capitalize on higher prices associated with early market fare. Similarly, DeSoto, a rabbiteye blueberry, was developed to extend the harvest season into late summer.
Stringer said most of the effort in this breeding program focused on providing an attractive, shelf-ready, early-season fruit with good color, flavor and firmness and long shelf life, but his research also explores the health benefits of fruits.
"We are working on developing varieties with improved nutraceutical properties," Stringer said. "But generally speaking, the range of phenolic compounds doesn't vary too drastically from one variety of blueberry to another. Typically, the smaller the fruit the higher the antioxidant level because the beneficial compounds are found in the skin. But overall, if you eat a quarter-cup of blueberries of any variety, you will get about the same benefit."
Wild rice with a protein boost
While researching varieties more suitable for growing in developing countries, ARS research molecular biologist Hari Krishnan and colleagues developed a hybrid rice with higher protein content than regular rice.
"Several years ago I was invited to give a talk in India," Krishnan said, "and the people there were interested in developing the wild rice Oryza nivara due to its drought-resistant properties."
Krishnan crossed that variety with Oryza sativa, common rice, and found the hybrid contained about 20 percent more protein than the parent varieties.
"This protein profile is very important," said Krishnan, "because billions of people in developing countries depend on the protein content in rice."
The new variety maintains traditional rice's better cooking characteristics. The hybrid's protein content may also add value to processed and prepared rice products in developed countries.
Chris O'Brien is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 2/p. 9