Oregano and sage, traditional staples of Greek and Italian cuisines, are part of the same botanical family. This family of herbs, passed down from Roman times has the reputation in traditional European and Chinese medicines of promoting health and preventing disease, but there is no understood mechanism of action that could be attributed to these plants.
That's from a recent article in Pharmacognosy Research (Jan-Mar, 2013) titled "Dietary supplementation with two Lamiaceae herbs-(oregano and sage) modulates innate immunity parameters in Lumbricus terrestris." Like many green plants, they are rich sources of beta-carotene, vitamin C, folic acid, thiamin, riboflavin, and vitamin B6, along with several minerals like potassium, zinc, calcium, iron, manganese, copper, and magnesium.
This family of herbs also contains a variety of phytochemicals, flavonoids and phenolic acids known to exert antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anticancer properties. Sage has been studied for its effect on cognitive performance and memory, while oregano is under investigation for his potential benefit to the immune system and reduction of pro-inflammatory cytokines (immune proteins). In this study, researchers were interested in how this family of herbs might affect the innate immune system. Innate immunity consists of a series of first-line-of-defense barriers that protect the body in quick response manner.
The subjects in this case were common Earthworms, not as unusual as one might think for use in this type of research. The worms happily consumed the herbs in question and responded to challenges to the immune system by enhancing the number and activity of the protective cells that govern innate immunity. While this is preliminary research, it does suggest that there may be more benefit to these herbs than merely taste and tradition.
Exploiting traditional botanicals for their new potential dietary benefit is now common practice. Case in point: Cassis berries, aka blackcurrant, one of the darkest of all berries, is extremely rich in anthocyanins and polyphenols, potent antioxidants. That makes blackcurrant of interest as a potential help in reducing the risk of a variety of conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases. But there may be more on the horizon for this usual fruit.
An article published in a relatively new journal, Phytotherepy Research (May 15), titled, Evaluation of the Effect of Blackcurrant Products on Gut Microbiota and on Markers of Risk for Colon Cancer in Humans, looked at the potential of blackcurrant powder as a new probiotic capable of increasing the number of healthy gut bacteria. The gut microbiome is the subject of much recent research that has probiotics linked to conditions not traditionally thought of as stemming from the gut. The Human Microbiome Project was launched in 2008 by the National Institute of Health to investigate the potential to improve human health through monitoring or manipulation of the human microbiome.
Because the attention has shifted so dramatically to the gut in recent years, many new botanicals are being explored for their potential in helping to maintain gut health. Yacon root (Smallanthus sonchifolius) is a traditional food among the Andean population in South America. Yacon is believed to be a source of many health-promoting properties including prebiotic effects. Diosgenin, a steroid compound isolated from yam, may turn out to be a valuable and novel class of prebiotics, along with lupin kernel fiber, a legume-derived food ingredient. Aqueous extract of blueberry, Indian mulberry, along with soluble fibers from white and red-flesh pitayas (dragon fruit) may stimulate the growth of healthy lactobacilli and bifidobacteria.
Several botanicals are getting a new look with respect to their potential for preventing colon cancer. In a recent issue of the journal Frontiers in Oncology (May 14,), an article titled "Identifying Molecular Targets of Lifestyle Modifications in Colon Cancer Prevention" focused on potential modifiers of this often deadly disease. They included several botanicals as part of the picture. Supplementation with grape seed extract (GSE), a complex mixture of polyphenols, specifically proanthocyanidins, may increase cancer cell apoptosis (natural cell death), inhibit cell signaling related to epigenetics (the effect on gene expression), growth, proliferation, metastasis, and inflammation. The GSE preventive potential may be due to its ability to target multiple proteins involved in the development of colorectal cancer (CRC).
Milk thistle is a botanical traditionally used to treat various liver complications. Silibinin, a constituent of silymarin extracted from the milk thistle plant (Silybum marianum), has been found in preclinical studies to be effective against skin, lung, prostate, bladder and CRC cancer models. Silibinin appears to be a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. Silibinin may also cause severe metabolic stress in CRC cells, inhibiting glucose uptake and interfering with cellular energy production and protein synthesis. The cellular damage to CRC cells by silibinin is severe and irreparable.
Curcumin, the pigment extracted from the spice turmeric that makes mustard yellow is a highly active phenolic compound. This powerful antioxidant also possesses anti-cancer properties. Its mode of action may be to induce mitochondrial stress, which not only can interrupt protein synthesis, but also energy production.
It is well-known that green tea contains a major polyphenol in epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). The cultivation of tea goes back thousands of years. As one of the worlds most consumed beverages, tea has been extensively studied due to the reported beneficial health effects. With regard to CRC, the question is whether or not the specific mechanism can be pinpointed.
New botanicals and new applications for old botanicals are continuously being explored. With no end in sight to the epidemic of type II diabetes and obesity, the markets for new products will continue unabated as Americans pursue healthier versions of foods to which they have become accustomed.
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Food Processing Magazine.