Gardener planting flowers in pot with dirt or soil at back yard

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Research at NC State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) is taking the health benefits of plants to the next level. Soon, it will be able to go even further with the addition of a new Food Processing Innovation Center (PIC) at the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis.

PHHI researchers study compounds in plants that are not nutrients, but have a disease- preventative impact on the body, Director Mary Ann Lila says. They are studying links between those compounds and diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. The compounds are unlike a single active ingredient of a pharmaceutical – they are interactive.

“So, it’s not just one magic thing you pull out of a plant, it’s really a lot of compounds that are biologically activated as the body digests and metabolizes food. Together these plant compounds impact human health,” Lila says.

As part of his research, PHHI Professor Mario Ferruzzi studies how health benefits of plants are delivered within the body. Some plants have higher levels of nutrients and bioactive compounds, and some are more easily absorbed by the body.

Instead of trying to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables, or breeding fruits and vegetables that contain more nutrients and bioactives, he says it may be possible to breed plants with beneficial compounds that are more accessible to the body. His research has studied a wide range of grains, fruits and vegetables, and other plant products like cocoa, tea and coffee.

Scientific Discussion in Laboratory

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PHHI researchers are not only seeking links between plants and human health outcomes, but also functional applications for the beneficial compounds, Lila says. However, without a food-grade pilot processing facility, the taste of an ingredient or effectiveness in a clinical trial cannot be tested. The new Food PIC, which was officially slated for $4.4 million in funding with the passage of North Carolina’s budget in June of 2017, will change that.

A partnership between the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, NC State University, and the North Carolina Research Campus, the Food PIC facility will bring together food manufacturers, entrepreneurs and researchers. The center is expected to open in 2018. A Current Good Manufacturing Practices design that can be certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for production of certain foods will make the facility one of a kind.

Ferruzzi, who also serves as the Food PIC interim project leader and subcommittee chair, says having a food pilot plant will allow PHHI research to go from the lab to real products that deliver the health benefits being identified.

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