Western Association of Agricultural Experiment Station Directors


Bioactive Dietary Chemicals

W-2122 (2006 – 2011): This project advanced our understanding of bioactive dietary chemicals that can be either beneficial or harmful to human health, thus identifying  ways to improve food safety, prevent common diseases, and ensure that consumers have a safe, healthy food supply. What has the project done so  far?

Salmon is a source of omega-3 fatty acids, bioactive chemicals that promote cardiac health (photo by Andrea Pokrzywinski).

Who cares and why?

Bioactive chemicals can be found naturally in foods or introduced during food processing. These chemicals can have both beneficial and undesirable  effects on human health. For example, certain fungal compounds found in corn, ground nuts, and tree nuts can damage DNA and promote cancer.  Conversely, omega-3 fatty acids produced by plants and algae and concentrated in certain fish species can promote cardiac health. In recent years,  the herbal products and food supplement industry, valued at an estimated $20 billion per year in the U.S., has taken off. Effective products could  reduce medical costs and provide farmers with new specialty crop opportunities; however, inadequate quality control and understanding of  potential toxicity could allow harmful substances to enter the food supply. Therefore, understanding the complex relationship between bioactive  dietary chemicals and human health is a paramount concern to consumers, agricultural producers, food processors, health professionals, and policymakers charged with maintaining a safe and nutritious food supply.

What has the project done so far?

Aspergillus species of fungi produce mold toxins that are potent carcinogens and can lead to serious human health problems when consumed (left photo courtesy of IITA). Another common fungal disease on corn ears, fusarium ear rot, can produce fumonisin, a mold toxin that is suspected to contribute to birth defects in Hispanic women who eat large amounts of corn (right photo by Thomas Lumpkin).

This multidisciplinary group of scientists from 15 U.S. universities and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service has been collaborating since 1971 to  improve food safety and human health worldwide. Their most recent efforts have investigated how food-borne bioactive chemicals can protect  against human diseases such as cancer, inflammation, birth defects, and microbial infections, as well as how food-borne toxins are created by  processing, preparation, and other post-harvest activities. Project scientists have also discovered bioactive chemicals that have adverse effects on  human health. Using this information, W-2122 researchers have developed approaches to increase beneficial—and decrease adverse—effects of  bioactive food chemicals and microbial contaminants. Research has also led to improved understanding of how changes to the human body’s natural  collection of bacteria and other microorganisms are related to chronic metabolic diseases. W-2122 extension experts have shared research results with stakeholders using multimedia materials.

Studies found that consuming dry bean or rice bran (the outer layer of the rice grain) increases beneficial bacteria that produce food for cells lining the colon, while also reducing the growth of harmful bacteria that can cause intestinal inflammation. Photo courtesy of Rob Qld, Flickr.

Impact Statements

  • Shed light on possible dietary strategies for preventing and treating metabolic syndromes (including type 2 diabetes hypertension, high cholesterol,  and cardiovascular diseases) that afflict over 47 million Americans.
  • Helped consumers make more informed, healthier choices about whether to take dietary supplements. For example, University of Illinois  researchers found that the estrogenlike compounds (isoflavones) in some soy supplements can stimulate growth of estrogen-dependent breast  cancer and can negate the effectiveness of breast cancer therapies (e.g., tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors), depending on dosage.
  • Developed ways to increase beneficial effects of bioactive chemicals so they are more active but have fewer adverse side effects for consumers.
  • Improved food safety by identifying how to prevent contamination from food-borne toxins during processing, preparation, and other post-harvest activities.
  • Found ways to assess and reduce harmful levels of aflatoxin B1 (a carcinogenic mold toxin) in turkey and grain. This information helps ensure safe  food products for consumers and is useful in parts of Asia and Africa where 10% of adults may die of aflatoxin-related liver cancer.
  • Advanced  strategies for protecting and treating individuals exposed to bioactive toxins through deliberate use in chemical terrorism or warfare or  natural contamination of foods.
  • Saved taxpayers millions of dollars by simplifying risk assessments for fumonisin, a carcinogenic mold toxin.
  • Characterized the fetus stage that is most susceptible to carcinogens to which the mother is exposed, leading to better prevention protocols for  pregnant women.
Other studies showed that bitter melon prevents obesity associated metabolic disorders like diabetes. Studies also linked the bioactive chemicals in bitter melon to improved glucose, insulin, triglyceride, and cholesterol levels. Bitter melon is widely cultivated throughout the year in Asia, eastern Africa, and South America and is used extensively in folk medicines. Thus, it provides a cost-effective treatment or preventive strategy that is widely acceptable, especially among culturally sensitive populations and developing nations. Photo courtesy of Lao Foods Flickr.

What research is needed?

Despite significant progress in this field, much remains unknown about the impact of bioactive dietary chemicals on human health and  food safety. Researchers are continuing to explore ways to increase the beneficial impacts and minimize the risks of bioactive dietary  chemicals. Continued collaboration and communication of results among consumers, agricultural producers, food processors, health  professionals, and policy makers is needed to maintain food safety and improve human health worldwide.

Want to know more?

Download the printable PDF!

Administrative Advisor: H. Michael Harrington

This project was supported by the Multistate Research Fund (MRF) established in 1998 by the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education  Reform Act (an amendment to the Hatch Act of 1888) to encourage and enhance multistate, multidisciplinary research on critical issues that have a  national or regional priority. For more information, visit https://www.waaesd.org/.

Contact Us

Western Association of Agricultural Experiment Station Directors
5890 Brittania Drive
Reno, NV 89523
Phone: (307) 760-3319