Plant Natural Products, Human Health and Agriculture: An Overview

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

Noble Research Institute

There are many terms buzzing around our grocers isles regarding health and nutrition. Words like: "antioxodant" and encouragement to add various nutritional supplements to our diets. But what do these terms mean? And what impact do they have on human health and agriculture? The Noble Research Institute has been working to demystify these terms to help us make healthier decisions about what we eat.

We are increasingly bombarded with information on how diet and lifestyle affect our health. A very recent report suggested that French fry consumption at the age of only five increases the risk of breast cancer in middle-aged women. Clearly, we could be digging our graves with our teeth, perhaps unknowingly, from a very early age. Some recommendations, for example, "stop smoking," "eat less fat" or "get more exercise," are easy to understand, if not always easy to act upon. More confusing are the numerous reports concerning potential health beneficial effects of components in our diets. Such reports are now commonplace on both TV and radio - "researchers at this or that institute report that chemicals present in green tea, grapes, broccoli, etc., have the potential to improve cardiovascular health, reduce cancer risk, etc., etc." Often, these reports seem to come around in cycles, and it is not obvious whether a true scientific breakthrough has been made, or whether CNN or Fox have simply decided that cardiovascular disease is going to be this month's health focus. Stories such as "chemicals in dark chocolate are good for your health" will always grab viewer attention!

What is the scientific basis for these various claims linking specific chemicals in our diet to long-term health benefits? To de-mystify what is a confusing area, and not just for non-specialists, some simple definitions (shown in bold type in the paragraphs below) may help. All plants, including the crops that form an important part of our diets, contain chemicals called natural products, also known as secondary metabolites or phytochemicals. These are not the simple chemicals such as sugars, fats or amino acids, that all living organisms require for their cells to grow and divide. Rather, they are produced to protect the stationary plant from physical and biological insults such as high UV light, insect and animal consumption or attack by pathogenic microbes. Collectively, plants produce about 200,000 different natural products, and many of these interact in some way or other with systems in our bodies.

Natural products can act as drugs or be chemically modified to yield drugs. Well-known examples of this include the anticancer drug taxol from Pacific yew, morphine and codeine from opium poppy or aspirin from willow. Other natural products, such as strychnine and many non-protein amino acids, are highly toxic to animals and humans and are classed as poisons. Natural products found in our diets that lack the acute biological effects of drugs, but that may have long-term health benefits if consumed in reasonable amounts over long periods, often are called nutraceuticals. This is a confusing term, since, by analogy with the term pharmaceutical, it might appear to indicate a chemical that acts as a drug, but which is delivered through the diet. Such chemicals are indeed found in many of the so-called dietary or nutritional supplements on sale in health food stores. In some cases, these supplements contain compounds which, for all intents and purposes, act as drugs (for example, the anti-depressant chemicals in St. John's wort) and may indeed be toxic if taken in large quantities or over prolonged periods. "Natural" does not always mean safe, and the concept that "natural" remedies are "chemical free" is clearly ludicrous. Plants make powerful compounds (natural products) in order to protect themselves from their environment. That being said, many plant natural products do appear to lack human toxicity, and such chemicals are indeed common components of a normal diet; increasing our consumption of such chemicals, through food or dietary supplements, may be beneficial to our health, for the reasons outlined below.

Interested in learning more? Check out the rest of this article here.