Kannapolis researchers unveil powders with punch
By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS — From fighting cancer to fighting wrinkles, the uber-healthy compound that gives red and purple fruits and vegetables their brilliant color will hit store shelves within a year as a new ingredient in food products and cosmetics, a lead scientist at the N.C. Research Campus says.
Dr. Mary Ann Lila announced Monday in Kannapolis that N.C. State University and Rutgers University scientists have figured out a way to extract and stabilize the natural substance, called anthocyanins, and sell it to food, healthcare and pharmaceutical companies.
“The thing that’s so exciting about anthocyanins is that they almost seem too good to be true,” said Lila, director of N.C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis.
Anthocyanins provide a wide range of health benefits, from preventing chronic disease to improving the appearance of skin. For years, people have consumed cranberry juice to cure urinary tract infections, thanks to the anthocyanins in cranberries.
Now, people who don’t want the sugar in cranberry juice or don’t like the tart taste instead can eat food containing the powdery, all-natural substance, Lila said.
The new ingredient could show up in cereals, granola bars, even gum, as well as cosmetic lotions and creams. Patented by Rutgers, the ingredient will be marketed and sold by Nutrasorb, a Rutgers spin-off headquartered in New Jersey with a subsidiary up and running at the N.C. Research Campus.
Lila currently represents Nutrasorb in Kannapolis.
She said it was too early to say how many people the company will employ in Kannapolis but added that manufacturing of some products — including cosmetics — could happen at the Research Campus.
Lila said she and her colleagues are well into negotiations with several companies and already have a licensed drink in Israel. In the United States, “I think cosmetics will be our first hit,” she said, with food products to follow.
A major manufacturer of soy products wants to use the new ingredient, as well as several other well-known food companies, she said.
She and her research team made the announcement during a global conference at the Research Campus, the Sixth International Workshop on Anthocyanins. It’s the first time the conference has been held in North America.
Scientists around have struggled for years to stabilize anthocyanins.
“This has been a problem of the functional food industry,” Lila said. “How do you get this stuff into a bite-sized form that someone can eat without all the sugar?”
Scientists from N.C. State and Rutgers developed a way to bind the bioactive compound with different flours, such as wheat bran, hemp and other grasses.
Through the process, which Lila said is simple and similar to cooking, all the sugars and water leech out of the matrix, leaving only the healthy compounds in a stable powder with a shelf-life of one year, even in high temperatures.
Lila moved her research to Kannapolis in 2008 when Dole Food Co. chairman and California billionaire David Murdock opened the Research Campus. Scientists were able to develop the new ingredient in three years — lightning fast in scientific circles — thanks to cutting-edge equipment in Kannapolis, Lila said.
While the process is simple, analysis is complicated. All analysis was done in Kannapolis, using nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectrometry and other state-of-the-art technology.
In animal studies, anthocyanins combined with flours performed better than those ingested alone, she said.
Last week, Lila’s lab won a $300,000 grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to help launch the anthocyanin ingredient into the marketplace.
The evidence of anthocyanins’ powers to heal are everywhere, Lila said.
• They help prevent cardiovascular disease.
• They’re beneficial during all stages of cancer.
“The interesting thing about anthocyanins is that they will inhibit the initiation, promotion and progression stages of cancer,” she said.
• They prevent cognitive and motor function loss as people age.
“This is something that’s really fantastic because everyone wants to find a way to retain more memory and more motor function as they age,” Lila said. “What we’ve found is that consumption of anthocyanins … actually give elderly patients the ability for more recall.”
Researchers have studied the effects on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well as milder forms of dementia, she said.
People form new neurons throughout their lifetime.
“But the process slows down as you age,” Lila said. “Anthocyanins are able to increase the rate of new neuron formation in the brain.”
The innovation is expected to help North Carolina farmers and agribusiness. Local fruits and vegetables were used in much of the research.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
What are they?
Anthocyanins are compounds naturally found in red, purple and blue produce. They possess high levels of antioxidant activity and cause the dark color of foods and plants, including flower petals and autumn leaves.
So far, scientists have discovered nearly 300 different anthocyanins.
Research suggests anthocyanins play active roles in protecting cells, healing the body and preventing disease, including:
• Heart and vascular disease
• High blood cholesterol
• Bacterial infections
• Urinary tract infections
• Age-related eyesight deterioration
• Premature aging
Fruits and vegetables with anthocyanins:
Berries including blueberries, cranberries and acai
Red grapes (and red wine)