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ACS Meeting News: New insights suggest whole grain compounds boost immune health

by Steve Ritter
August 22, 2016

Structure of HBOA-glc.
Photo of vial containing NIST’s monoclonal antibody reference material.
Structure of HBOA-glc.

Whole grains in bread and other foods can add a healthy dose of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber to our diets. At the American Chemical Society national meeting in Philadelphia Monday, researchers described how some lesser known bioactive grain compounds called benzoxazinoids, or BXs for short, could improve health through their immune-boosting properties.

Inge S. Fomsgaard of Aarhus University talked about BXs during a session titled “Chemistry Behind Health Effects of Grains” organized by the Division of Agricultural & Food Chemistry.

BXs are structurally similar to the hormone melatonin, the neurotransmitter serotonin, and the amino acid tryptophan. Scientists have known for a few decades that BXs help protect young cereal grain plants such as rye, wheat, and corn against weeds, insects, and diseases. But it wasn’t until 2009 that Fomsgaard’s group discovered that mature grains also contain BXs. Fomsgaard and her colleagues subsequently found that BXs survive food processing and that the composition and concentration of the compounds are enhanced via enzymatic processes during malting or baking.

Using mass spectrometry-based metabolomics methods in rats, pigs, and people, the researchers have shown that BXs are taken up, distributed, and metabolized by mammals, Fomsgaard said. Her team has also found that a diet high in BXs enhances bacteria-induced production of inflammatory cytokines in immune cells. These cytokines help boost the immune system. Now the team is working toward determining specific BXs that are active in the beneficial effects, which could be used to help prevent health problems such as obesity, allergies, diabetes, inflammatory diseases, and certain cancers.

For example, Fomsgaard’s team initiated a project, called RyeproC, after experiments in mice and humans by other groups showed that BXs in rye bran help suppress prostate cancer. In initial lab studies, the Aarhus team has uncovered seven BXs that enter prostate tissue with HBOA-glc being the major metabolite detected.

Fomsgaard and her colleagues have created the Bread & Breakfast project to take advantage of the compounds. As part of the project, Fomsgaard and her team are developing bread recipes and new food products with optimized BX content. “We don’t want to make BXs out to be new miracle compounds,” Fomsgaard said. “But we do want to exploit their benefits in ‘functional foods’ to support health and disease prevention.”

“These results are fascinating and are helping to establish a whole new research area on the pharmacology and medicinal properties of BXs,” says Daniel G. Vassão of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, whose group studies plant defense mechanisms, including ones involving BXs. “This research is certainly opening many doors and helping us to better understand not only our dietary exposure to BXs and how they affect our health, but also the differences and commonalities in both effects and mechanisms of action with other health-promoting phytochemicals.”

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