A recent study shows that, when it comes to plants, a little stress is good, which may be a boon to the organics' and functional foods' industries. Apparently pampered plants from conventional farms that use modern pest-control measures are lower in phyto-alexins, naturally occurring antibiotics and antioxidants that fight off pathogens. Conversely, organically grown plants are forced to develop a stronger defence system, which boosts phyto-alexin levels.
Phyto-alexins do their damage by puncturing pathogen cell walls, which delays maturation, disrupts metabolisms and prevents reproduction, essentially cutting the pathogen off at the knees before it can invade the plant's normal functions. Interestingly, foods with high phyto-alexin levels do the same in the human body by disrupting cell oxidation and inflammation, which may reduce the incidence of cancer, heart and inflammatory diseases, and elevated cholesterol.
Until recently, this defence mechanism was largely ignored by the plant-science community until the advent of resveratrol, which is perhaps the most well-known phyto-alexin. Red grapes, red wine, and Hu zhang (Chinese herb and prolific weed) are all good sources of resveratrol.
Researchers are connecting the dots and discovering that organically grown foods are notably higher in phyto-alexins, which according to USDA researchers could open the door to a new area of functional foods called phyto-alexin-enriched foods. "Research from our laboratory and others has shown that many plants can produce higher levels of beneficial compounds under conditions of stress or elicitor treatment. By employing the plant's own enzyme factory, many of these compounds can be produced at increased levels and readily incorporated into food products," according to USDA.
Though this new discovery could offer a new functional foods category, the real boon is that evidence is mounting that organic foods are indeed healthier than conventionally grown foods. This month's issue of Functional Ingredients explores where the world of functional and organic meet, whether it is Managing Editor James Townsend's story on emerging organic opportunities out of Africa, or Mark J Tallon's article on organic ingredients.
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Functionally and Organically Yours,