COLLEGE STATION — When people talk about the risk for cancer, one product — tobacco — gets all the attention.
“About 35 percent of the risk factors associated with cancer are attributed to tobacco,” said Dr. Ed Miller, Baylor School of Dentistry. “But about another 35 percent of the risk factors are associated with diet. An improper diet is equal to tobacco use in causing cancer.”
Now a team of researchers from various Texas universities and agencies are proposing a plan to overcome that fact by designing healthier fruits and vegetables and then convincing more people to eat them.
“We need to get people aware of the importance of eating correctly,” Dr. Leonard Pike, director of Texas A&M University’s Vegetable Improvement Center, said simply.
Miller and Pike joined others from several Texas universities and agencies as well as farmers and produce marketers to unveil a $4 million initiative in Austin. They hope legislators will vote this session to fund the effort to design fruits and vegetables for better health and nutrition.
The plan contains goals that the authors say are achievable within six years, provided the funding is approved.
Among the top goals is to use traditional genetics and genetic engineering to increase the levels of “phytochemicals,” or substances in fruits and vegetables to prevent diseases such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
As the researchers see it, the initiative would fund medical scientists through clinical studies to determine and document specific compounds in selected plants that provide protective benefits against human disease. That information would be conveyed to the agricultural researchers who would develop the new health- promoting varieties and market them worldwide. The program also would support better farming, harvesting and handling processes to keep the fruits and vegetables in the best quality until reaching the consumer. Graduate students would be included in the initiative so that the next generation of agricultural and medical scientists could be trained.
The proposal includes a cooperative element between agricultural scientists with the Texas A&M Vegetable Improvement Center, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, Texas A&M-Kingsville Citrus Center, Baylor College of Dentistry and University of Texas medical centers.
What are the benefits to Texas? Pike said the benefits weigh in for all consumers, producers and marketers of Texas grown fruits and vegetables.
“We’re all consumers, so if we improve upon the vegetables and fruits to have more of the type of compounds that are known to prevent disease, then it benefits us whether we realize it or not while eating this produce,” Pike said.
He also promised increased export markets, noting that “I guarantee you that when people in Mexico City hear about improved fruits and vegetables, they’ll be buying them and taking them back across the border.”
Pike anticipates that new uses for produce not now known are likely as a result of the research. Extracts made from the culled produce, or that which is edible but didn’t make the fresh market for aesthetic reasons, might become marketable as natural food coloring, he suggested.
“Of course, all of this means that we must have an educational program for our children to begin teaching them early about the importance of a good diet,” Pike said.
The funding initiative calls for educational programs for children, teens and adults, as one of the goals.
Along with the research to increase the phytochemicals, he said, will be considerations on the taste of the fruits and vegetables to further encourage people to eat five servings from this food group every day.