AGRONOMIC NEWS ITEMS
From Agronomists of the
Potash & Phosphate Institute
655 Engineering Drive, Suite 110
Norcross, Georgia 30092-2837
Phone (770) 447-0335
Fall 2000, No. 3
So what is a nutraceutical? It is a specific chemical or group of chemicals in a plant that provides special health benefits. For example, isoflavones in soybean products are believed to reduce the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and several types of cancer. Therefore, isoflavones are nutraceuticals and plants that contain significant quantities are called functional foods.
Tomatoes are another example of a functional food. They contain significant quantities of lycopene…and lycopene is a nutraceutical that helps reduce certain cancers. So if you like catsup on your food or are fond of salsa, then you are eating healthy! Well, at least with respect to this one tiny part of your diet.
The science of functional foods is complicated. Cause and effect is often difficult to identify since plants are a complex mix of so many naturally occurring chemicals. However, scientists are learning more every day. Did you know that a diet rich in blueberries may slow the aging process? And for you chocolate lovers, cocoa is packed with antioxidants that may reduce the risk of developing cancer and heart disease.
Why all the current excitement about nutraceuticals? The answer in a word is biotechnology. We are to that point in science where plants can be genetically modified quickly and specifically to greatly enhance desirable characteristics as well as eliminate undesirable characteristics. For example, if lycopene reduces cancer, then why not develop tomato varieties that contain two-, four-, ten-times the lycopene content of current varieties? A rice high in beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, has already been developed to help combat vitamin A deficiency cited as occurring in 120 million children worldwide. By some estimates, widespread distribution of this rice could save more than a million lives a year.
The role of fertilizer will change as foods with special quality attributes are developed. Nutrients, such as phosphorus and potassium, are essential for the formation and function of many compounds in plants. Fertilizer management…rate, timing, nutrient balance …will all have to be re-evaluated. For example, research has shown that lycopene concentration in tomatoes increases with potassium fertilization. The same is true for isoflavones in soybeans. So if a “biotech tomato” is developed that has the ability to produce twice the lycopene content of its traditional predecessor, how much should the potassium fertilizer rate be increased to support maximum lycopene production? The adage seems to apply, “The more we know…the more we realize we don’t know.”
Fertilizer research can no longer focus exclusively on traditional quality components. As functional foods become an increasingly important part of our diet, information will be needed on how to fertilize these new crops for optimum production….according to a new definition of quality.