Solving Nutritional Mysteries

The healing powers of crops

“The Research Centre at St Boniface is unique – probably unique in the world – because rarely do you combine agriculture with health and medicine.”

He’s not the same Dan Brown who has written a handful of blockbuster suspense novels, but this Dan Brown is unlocking a few mysteries of his own – nutritional mysteries that will have an impact on health and well-being for generations to come.

As a Principal Investigator with Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine (CCARM) at St. Boniface Hospital Dr. Brown and his colleagues work to understand how certain crops and foods can prevent and treat disease.

Originally from southern Ontario, Dr. Brown notes that CCARM is uniquely positioned to uncover the health benefits of agricultural products.

“It’s the only place in Canada where you have a formal collaboration between a department of agriculture, a teaching hospital, and a university to collaborate, cooperate, and co-fund work on food, agriculture, health, and medicine,” says Dr. Brown. “The Research Centre at St. Boniface is unique – probably unique in the world – because rarely do you combine agriculture with health and medicine.”

One of the main benefits of having agricultural and medical researchers working side by side is the seamless, timely sharing of information and expertise, says Brown.

“We all eat, we all consume food, and there is a growing awareness now that food consumption and nutrition are very, very important for the health of Canadians, especially with respect to the area we call preventative medicine,” he says.

Dr. Brown spends his days in his “Bioactives Research” lab where he and his colleagues study specific compounds in plants that are said to have health benefits. North American Ginseng is one major area of focus. In Canada, most ginseng is grown in southern Ontario. Canada has been exporting ginseng since the 18th century, and today, exports are worth about $100,000,000 a year.

Ginseng has long been recognized as a general heath tonic and immune system-booster. In fact, ginseng extracts are the primary ingredients in COLD-FX, a popular cold-fighting product.

Dr. Brown and his team are looking at what other health benefits ginseng can bring to the table, and are optimistic about what they are learning. “What we found in our last study of some of the extracts from the (ginseng) berries is that they give very, very good cardiovascular protection – very similar to the type of protection you get from resveratrol, which is found in red grapes and red wine,” he says.

Another crop Dr. Brown and his colleagues are studying is the lingonberry. “It’s a type of cranberry found in northern Manitoba,” says Dr. Brown. “They have some of the highest antioxidant levels that we’ve found in berries, and so we’re trying to look at those berries to find out if those antioxidant levels that are measured in the lab can be translated into the suspected health benefits for people.”

It’s interesting to note, says Dr. Brown, that the harsh northern climes of northern Manitoba might contribute to the potency and potential health benefits of the compounds that exist in lingonberries, and this may give Manitoba-grown berries a quality advantage.

Farther south, though, the halls of the St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre provide a much warmer climate – one that inspires cooperation, innovation, and excellence.

“We do very well at St. Boniface. I’m very impressed,” says Dr. Brown, who moved to Winnipeg from London, Ontario in 2010. “It’s a really unheralded gem for Winnipeggers. “St. Boniface Hospital is the number one research hospital in Western Canada, and top 10 in Canada, which is pretty impressive for a small province of a little over a million people.”

The next stage of the ginseng research involves testing it with animals to confirm its positive benefits and to determine what sort of doses might be appropriate for human consumption. Dr. Brown is especially excited about the potential of ginseng, lingonberries, and other crops studied by CCARM to prevent disease.

“If you look at the statistics, 50% of all cancers are deemed to be preventable. They’re related to lifestyle and nutrition,” says Dr. Brown. “If we could show effectively what good nutrition, good lifestyle choices are and people really take that seriously, we can prevent about 50% of deaths of cancer. The same goes for cardiovascular disease. Most people in the world die of cardiovascular problems, and much of that is preventable. A lot of that, such as the higher incidence of diabetes, especially in places such as Manitoba, is due to poor nutrition or lack of good choices for nutrition.”

Thanks to Dr. Brown and his CCARM colleagues, we are learning more about nutrition all the time – new knowledge that can improve the lives of people everywhere.

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