By Dave Schutz
For people fed up with restrictive diets that require cutting certain foods to lower risk of chronic disease such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, CSU Horticulture professor Dr. Henry Thompson has some welcome news: Disease prevention may be all about the food.
Thompson helped to create Crops For Health (CFH), a CSU working group uniting six departments across the university focused on analyzing and selecting for chronic disease-fighting traits in existing food crop varieties.
“Crops for Health is based completely on what Mother Nature has made and looking at what already exists,” Thompson says. “We’re not talking about genetic engineering at all.”
This idea is what brought Dr. Henry Thompson to CSU’s Department of Horticulture about eight years ago, even if he wasn’t quite sure what that meant at the time.
“I don’t know what it is right now,” he recalls thinking, “but we’re going to do something special related to the biomedical sciences and agriculture.”
Trained in nutrition, Thompson has worked for decades on cancer research, and previously focused on the role of fruits and vegetables in cancer prevention. Thompson and his colleagues shifted their strategy after finding that these foods were not having the positive effects they expected.
Thompson says, “We rethought things and said, ‘What foods do people eat every day in large quantities and are affordable and available throughout the world?’”
The answer is staple crops, such as wheat, corn and especially dried beans, also known as pulses.
Subsequent research by Thompson and others indicates a great deal of promise in this direction. For instance, a 2009 study by Thompson and colleagues substantiated previous speculation that dry bean consumption (such as kidney beans and black beans) has an inhibitive effect on breast cancer. The reasons for this are still not well understood. In a nutshell, the idea is that numerous compounds that exist in plants to confer some sort of advantage – for instance, to ward off predators – may also be responsible for preventing disease in humans. Some of these compounds, such as antioxidants and flavonoids, are already familiar to many people, but the types of these may number in the thousands in a particular plant.
On one hand, complicating dietary advice with even more elements may make some people recoil in fear. Isn’t it hard enough already to manage the proper proportion of fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals to maintain a healthy diet? It’s enough to make consumers already overwhelmed by a flood of complicated dietary guidelines want to run their shopping carts off a cliff.
On the other hand, as Thompson explains, the message is deceivingly simple, and in fact, fun.
“What more fun way to reduce chronic disease risk than come up with delicious, nutritious, affordable natural foods that have health benefits,” Thompson says.
Rather than trying to convince people to give up foods, CFH is working from the premise that chronic disease risk can be lowered with foods that people already enjoy eating. There is no need to give up bread or potatoes as so many recent fad diets would have us do.
Though the primary focus of CFH is on disease prevention, there may be important environmental implications. Thompson argues that current worldwide bean consumption is a lot lower than it should be, and because beans contribute nitrogen back to soils, promoting bean production will reduce the need for fertilizers. Also, the water requirements for producing protein from animal sources – especially beef – far exceed those for beans.
According to Thompson, that doesn’t mean swearing off meat entirely, but rather bringing the consumption of animal and plant products back into balance in a world where meat consumption is on the rise.
“Those are key global challenges, and we’re addressing them,” Thompson says.
The promotion of plant-based diets to mitigate resource use is nothing new, but in a world food system that is increasingly consolidating and relying more on genetically modified varieties, the CFH model also works toward maintaining the broad and diverse stock of available food crop varieties.
“I think that certainly does point toward bringing more genetic diversity into the food system” says Dr. Pat Byrne, CSU Soil and Crop Sciences professor and member of the CFH team.
People can take action by increasing dietary diversity, especially in terms of their intake of foods from different botanical families. Meanwhile, Thompson and CFH researchers are doing the difficult work of untangling the science behind the potential health benefits contained within the diversity of the world’s food crops. It’s a task about which Thompson is enthusiastic.
“It’s going to be a fascinating story,” he says. “It’ll knock peoples socks off.”
For more information and a helpful diagram of the food families, visit the CFH website at www.cropsforhealth.colostate.edu.