PhytoRx: Produce prescription pilot program launches in Mooresville

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 16, 2022

MOORESVILLE — Imagine leaving a doctor’s appointment with a new prescription in hand, but instead of heading to the pharmacy, you go to the grocery store. Instead of getting just pills, you get produce, too. It’s a vision that Cheri Granillo hopes to make a reality through her roles at NC State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute and HealthReach Community Clinic.

Granillo, a nurse practitioner and N.C. State Extension associate, has developed an online course to offer healthcare providers training so they are better equipped to offer patients specific dietary guidance beyond the generic advice to, “improve your diet.” A select group of patients at HealthReach Community Clinic in Mooresville will soon be receiving a PhytoRx, a prescription for specific foods that will support their individual health concerns. Providers will write a script for anthocyanins and/or carotenoids with a list of foods that fall into each category.

Anthocyanins and carotenoids are phytochemicals found in plants that offer protection against environmental stresses the plant may face. These pigments are also bioactive in the human body in a similar biological stress-fighting way. These might be compared to the active ingredient in a traditional medication.

Anthocyanins are red and purple pigments, while carotenoids are orange and yellow pigments. Typically, the color of the food can indicate the presence of these pigments, but not always, if they are masked by a different pigment. For example, the darker, green chlorophyll in spinach hides from our sight the lighter colored carotenoids that are present.

Patients don’t have to decipher these nuances on their own though. HealthReach has partnered with FeedNC to supply the appropriate fruits and vegetables that will meet the prescription specifications. FeedNC’s grocery volunteers will use a PhytoRx Substitution List to quickly identify what available foods offer anthocyanins and carotenoids, so the prescription can be filled no matter what’s in season or in stock week to week.

Andrea Sherrill, a registered dietitian and a Family and Consumer Science agent for NC Cooperative Extension in Iredell County, will pull all the pieces of this puzzle together through practical application by offering cooking demonstrations of how to prepare healthy dishes with the prescribed fruits and vegetables. The PhytoRx program at HealthReach will officially kick off with a tasting of dishes that Sherrill will prepare on-site to coach participants through the recipe steps.

Granillo doesn’t envision a future free of medicine, but one that incorporates fruits and vegetables in a lifestyle medicine model. “As providers, we know that it’s healthy to eat more fruits and vegetables, but then there’s a disconnect: the conversation moves onto prescribing this drug or trying that therapy or seeing this specialist,” she says. “It’s time to start considering how every bite can positively impact human health, and providers can have a more influential role in that,” she believes.