WASHINGTON, Sept. 23, 2015 - Carbohydrates are often viewed as the enemy when it comes to diet and health. But what if scientists could pack the carb-filled foods we love with valuable protein that also cures diseases?

Yael Vodovotz, with Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, is one researcher making this a reality with soy-based, protein-packed bread and pretzels. Vodovotz specializes in “functional foods,” which are recognized by the Mayo Clinic as “foods that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition.”

Proponents of functional foods say they can help reduce the risk of disease. The popularity of such foods has grown in recent years among consumers — from probiotic yogurt to fiber-rich oatmeal and calcium-fortified orange juice. 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke at Ohio State a couple of years ago to discuss the university’s research on functional foods. “This is an extraordinary story…and it’s an extraordinary seal of approval for the land grant university system,” he said, adding that this kind of research proves how important it is for lawmakers to view agricultural research in the same light as health research. 

Vodovotz, who arrived at Ohio State's Department of Food Science and Technology in 2000 after working with NASA, is taking the idea of functional foods to the next level. Her soy-based bread and pretzels are in clinical trials, testing their effects on patients with cancer and diabetes.

With about $100,000 in funding from the Ohio Soybean Council, as well as grants from the National Institutes of Health, Vodovotz has successfully developed bread that contains enough soy to approach what's typical in the soy-rich Asian diet, according to university publications.

She hopes that the products will eventually be commercialized so consumers can have healthier options without completely giving up the foods they enjoy. In an interview with Agri-Pulse, she said the foods are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA, but she and her team have been trying to commercialize them for a decade. “It’s just a matter of finding the right partner,” she said. “We’re working on it.” She noted that these products could be promising in school lunch programs, particularly with the new USDA nutrition standards that require certain amounts of protein for students.

In the meantime, her research team is focused on clinical trials. Along with Steve Clinton, a medical oncologist with Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, Vodovotz has conducted trials with the soy-based bread to examine the product's benefits against prostate cancer. She said a trial focused on pancreatitis is starting this fall.

Her soy-based soft pretzels have a low glycemic index to potentially fight diabetes. Vodovotz is working with Martha Belury, a professor in the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State, who showed that the pretzel — which is made with safflower oil — can reduce blood sugar in women with controlled Type 2 diabetes.

Vodovotz is also developing a soy-based tomato drink with the help of a USDA grant, which also could be used to help treat prostate cancer, she said. Additionally, some of the most successful products in her lab are antioxidant-rich black raspberry confections and nectar that are being developed to fight prostate and oral cancer.

Vodovotz’s research is just one example of the scientific accomplishments being made with food and nutrition in the nation’s universities. At Ohio State, she said graduate students are eager to join her team and that functional food research is especially popular among students in food science. This interest, as well as increased funding from government and private sources, indicates this functional food research will continue to grow, possibly at the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), which was established by the 2014 farm bill.


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