WASHINGTON – No matter how you slice it, Americans aren’t eating their veggies.
According to a recently published USDA study, less than half of 8,000 people surveyed in 1999 and 2000 got their recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
Requirements. To meet the federal government’s MyPyramid dietary recommendations, individuals should munch on anywhere from 2 to 6 1/2 cups of fruits and vegetables each day, depending on age, gender and activity level.
For instance, a 50-year-old man who exercises 30 minutes a day should consume about 3 cups of veggies and 2 cups of fruit daily. Are you making the cut?
If not, take comfort in knowing that Agricultural Research Service researchers are on your side. They’re working to make the nation’s veggie-crunching goals more reachable.
And they’re taking more of a carrot – and less of a stick – approach.
Senses. How do you get people to eat more brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and beets? You excite their senses. Surprise them, say, with unexpected color and explosive flavor.
It’s a worthwhile tack to take, said Philipp Simon, plant geneticist at the Vegetable Crops Research Unit in Madison, Wis.
Thanks to work he did with colleagues more than 25 years ago, the carrot is now an even better source of dietary vitamin A. Using classical breeding methods, they helped boost the veggie’s already abundant stores of beta-carotene by 75 percent.
Beta-carotene is what our bodies use to make all-important vitamin A, which is crucial for good eye health and a strong immune system. It’s also responsible for the carrot’s orange hue.
Rainbow. Simon would like to sneak in other nutrients, too. That’s why, several years ago, he got to wondering: why settle for just orange?
After all, 700 years ago, Western Europeans were feasting on carrots that ranged in color from lemon-yellow to burgundy to purple.
We can have the same variety today – and the healthful antioxidants associated with those brightly colored pigments.
In addition to breeding yellow, red, deep-orange, purple, and even white carrots, Simon aims to create a “rainbow” carrot – a multi-pigmented root that naturally contains several antioxidants, such as lycopene, lutein, and anthocyanin.
Other researchers at the Madison lab are just as innovative. Inspired by nature’s genetic diversity, they’re dreaming up all kinds of eye-catching and palette-tempting veggies.
The potato. Given its universal appeal and popularity, the potato is one vegetable that’s not being passed over in the pantry.
Just ask geneticist Shelley Jansky, who works in Simon’s research unit.
“Think of apples,” she said. “We’ve got a staggering array of choices when it comes to this fruit.” She thinks consumers deserve similar variety when it comes to potatoes.
Tapping genetic diversity as it exists in nature or in seed-preserving genebanks is one way to dress up the common potato. Taking advantage of environmental influences is another.
Goal. Jansky’s pie-in-the-sky goal? A baked potato that has all the taste of one that’s “loaded,” but requires little salt, pepper or sour cream.
Because potatoes have hundreds of aromatic compounds that can be subtlety plied and tweaked by expert breeders, she thinks it’s altogether possible.
But what if you’ve grown accustomed to classic white potatoes and want to keep them that way, without skimping on nutrition?
That happens to be a goal of Agricultural Research Service geneticist John Bamberg, who manages the agency’s U.S. Potato Genebank in Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
“There’s a lot of exciting research going on with colored potatoes,” he said.
“But for many consumers, those might seem like a totally different food compared to the potatoes they’re used to.”
Just 12 potato varieties account for 90 percent of the spuds grown in the United States. This is in contrast to the 5,000 potato samples – representing nearly 140 species, from the southwestern United States to as far away as southern Chile – held in the U.S. Potato Genebank.
Wild characters. Bamberg and collaborator Creighton Miller at Texas A&M University in College Station are trying to tap some of this wild character.
The potatoes they’re interested in have ordinary white flesh but are loaded with good-for-the-body antioxidants, including phenolic compounds such as chlorogenic and caffeic acid – and salicylic and p-coumaric acids, too.
“Like most wild species, they have tubers the size of marbles,” said Bamberg.
“Their beneficial traits can eventually be bred into larger potatoes appropriate for a commercial crop.”
Bamberg also has a passion when it comes to potatoes and potassium – a mineral that’s been shown to lower blood pressure.
Potassium. Along with physiologist Jiwan Palta at the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Horticulture, he’s screening the genebank’s genetic diversity for stocks naturally higher in potassium.
“Potatoes are already high in potassium, and since we eat a lot of them, they account for a significant part of the average American’s daily intake,” he said.
“So upping potatoes’ potassium content, even just a bit, ought to be a practical way to increase the country’s overall potassium intake without asking consumers to do anything different.”
Onions. The onion has a reputation for being rather unpleasant or difficult.
That’s a real shame, said Michael Havey, a geneticist in the Madison lab, because the onion is a nutritional knockout, containing three different groups of health-enhancing compounds: thiosulfinates, fructans, and flavonoids.
Thiosulfinates are what gives onions their pungent, sulfurlike taste and aroma. These compounds are some of our bloodstream’s best allies. They can bust up platelets that might otherwise form life-threatening plugs at sites of vascular damage.
Fructans are a type of dietary fiber shown to reduce rates of colorectal cancers. And onions’ flavonoids, such as quercetin, have proven antioxidant activities.
While this trio of compounds is found in today’s onions, you’ve got to be a fan of strong-tasting, ultra-firm varieties to access them.
The onions that consumers generally find most pleasant are heavily diluted with water and possess fewer health-enhancing compounds.
Havey aims to develop an onion that’s mild in taste but still chock-full of heart-healthy nutrients.
The major limiting factor for Havey? The onion’s sluggish reproductive cycle.
“It takes 2 whole years to get a new generation of onions after performing a cross between two plants,” he said.
But most consumers would probably agree that a sweet and healthful onion is definitely worth the long wait.
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