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UWI notebook

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Researcher investigates local raspberry with healthy properties

Using plants to tackle disease

Scientific studies clearly demonstrate the relationship between diet and health. Inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease are leading causes of death in Jamaica. With the high occurrence of these diseases locally, as well as worldwide, it becomes increasingly important to find alternative treatments which are more economical than commercially available medicines. One such alternative treatment is the use of traditional medicine, using plants and plant extracts. The active ingredients in the plants and plant extracts are called phytochemicals.

Of the 3,000 species of flowering plants grown in Jamaica, 27 per cent are endemic or native to Jamaica. Additionally, many of the species that produce edible fruits are not known by the general populace and are, therefore, underutilised. As a vast number of Jamaica's fruit species have not been scientifically studied, a unique and significant opportunity for research presents itself.

Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, Dr Camille Bowen-Forbes, has a strong interest in food chemistry and its practical applications, which has led to her investigation of these fruits and their phytochemicals. Her publication on the topic resulted in her receiving the 2010 Principal's Award for the Best Research Publication in the Faculty of Pure & Applied Sciences.

Dr Bowen-Forbes argues that her investigation could potentially lead to the discovery of positive biological properties of a number of our wild fruit species and the compounds they contain. This could be beneficial for health. She observed that scientific research has driven the commercialisation of a number of fruits and fruit products, resulting in increased production and market value of the products derived from the fruit. For example, the recent discovery of the anticancer properties of the pomegranate has resulted in considerable commercialisation of various value-added pomegranate products such as juices, wines, extracts, capsules, cosmetics, among others.

Dr Bowen-Forbes, in collaboration with Prof Muraleedharan Nair of the Michigan State University, has for the last two years been studying exotic or uncommon edible Jamaican fruits that grow wild, and conducting research into their health-beneficial properties and biologically active constituents. The research has the potential to lead to the discovery of new plant sources that may be used in the treatment of disease, as well as the development of value-added food products of health benefit to consumers in Jamaica, the region, and beyond. This research should contribute significantly to the food and agricultural industries, and may also have a positive impact on the pharmaceutical industry.

Jamaica's blackberry and raspberry fruits

Blackberries and raspberries are from the Rubus genus, which consists of 250 species of plants. These and other small fruits have been gaining popularity in the diet due to their possession of natural antioxidants and other non-nutrient phytochemicals which improve health. The anthocyanins and other chemical compounds such as phenolics, which are present in blackberries and raspberries, are important due to the health-beneficial effects associated with their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and chemopreventative properties. Five Rubus species are found in Jamaica: one produces blackberries and four bear raspberries. All are edible, yet none of these species is well-known.

The red raspberry - rubus rosifolius

Rubus rosifolius is a red raspberry found in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Australia and Asia. Also called the West Indian raspberry, it is one of the many fruit-bearing plants in Jamaica that is underutilised, being known and eaten by only a minority of the populace. It grows wild in the cooler, hilly areas at elevations between 1,500 and 3,000 feet. This specie was the first among the group to be studied, as it was the most available at the time of sample collection. It is the first time that the red raspberry was being studied in Jamaica. When R. rosifolius fruits were extracted it was found that all three extracts exhibited antioxidant activity. The extract showing the greatest activity was subjected to further investigation and eight phytochemicals were isolated and, for the first time, reported from Rubus rosifolius.

Additionally, one of the compounds was, for the first time, reported from this group, the Rubus genus. The compounds were tested for antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer activities. Four of the compounds isolated from R. rosifolius exhibited good antioxidant activity, comparable to that of B-carotene, a powerful antioxidant found in foods such as carrots. Three compounds showed low to moderate anti-inflammatory activity, and two compounds demonstrated anticancer activity, moderately inhibiting the growth of human colon cancer cells.

These results demonstrate that red raspberries and their phytochemicals have the potential to improve health. They also demonstrate that R. Rosifolius is a local fruit that possesses good biological properties. Consequently, its consumption has the potential to promote health, and should, therefore, be encouraged. These findings suggest that R. rosifolius would be a good crop for cultivation and processing into products such as juices, jams, wines, ice cream, yoghurt, to name a few. The cultivation of this crop and subsequent processing into value-added products would involve farmers, agricultural scientists and food processors. This research, therefore, has the potential to positively impact our agricultural and food industries, and improve the health of our people.