If you take a look at the Nutrition Facts panel on your favorite snack, you can learn a lot about the different molecules in your food. These molecules—fats, proteins, carbs, vitamins, and minerals—are essential for our health: they provide energy for our bodies and can be recycled to form the molecular building blocks of our cells. Many of these molecules even promote specific molecular processes: Vitamin C helps build the collagen in connective tissue , while iron allows oxygen to bind red blood cells and be transported through the body .
But there’s an entire class of nutrients you won’t find listed in the Nutrition Facts: phytonutrients. While phytonutrients (also called phytochemicals) are not essential for our survival, they can have beneficial effects on our health. Trendy “superfoods” are often high in phytonutrients like resveratrol, flavonoids, or antioxidants.
This fruit smoothie recipe from Dr. Dena Herman packs a big punch of antioxidants thanks to a generous serving of antioxidant-rich berries. Antioxidants are a large group of chemicals that have the ability to counteract a process called oxidation. A material is “oxidized” when it loses electrons through a chemical reaction; antioxidants can impair this process by giving up electrons and becoming oxidized themselves. For example, apples that are cut and exposed to the air will quickly turn brown as oxygen interacts with and oxidizes molecules in the fruit’s tissue. Lemon juice can prevent this oxidative browning because it contains antioxidant molecules like Vitamin C.
In our bodies, oxidation can lead to cellular damage by breaking down important molecules like proteins, fats, and even DNA. Molecules that promote oxidative damage not only come from environmental factors like air pollutants, smoke, and UV radiation, but can also come from our own bodies as a byproduct of many cellular and metabolic processes. Our bodies are equipped to deal with moderate amounts of damage; however, extensive “oxidative stress” can wreak havoc on our cells and may contribute to the development of cancer, insulin resistance, and several cardiovascular and neurological diseases [3,4]. Consuming foods rich in antioxidants is thought to help counteract such harmful oxidative stress.
Makes about 4-6, 8 oz glasses
1 package silken tofu or soft tofu
2 cups mixed frozen berries*
2–3 tbsp apple juice concentrate
Water or unfiltered apple juice, enough to blend
*Other types of frozen fruit will work, but do not include citrus as it will curdle with tofu. Berries are used in this recipe because they are a great source of antioxidants.
- Blend all ingredients in a blender until smooth.
- Adjust to desired consistency by adding more water or unfiltered apple juice.
- Serve immediately and enjoy!
- USDA Agricultural Research Service, “Phytonutrient FAQs”
- Harvard School of Public Health, “Antioxidants: Beyond the Hype”
- NIH MedlinePlus, “Antioxidants”
- Scientific American, “Is the Free-Radical Theory of Aging Dead?”
- NIH Research Radio Podcast on Resveratrol
- Van Robertson WB, Schwartz B (1953) Ascorbic acid and the formation of collagen. J Biol Chem 201: 689–696.
- Dallman PR (1986) Biochemical basis for the manifestations of iron deficiency. Annu Rev Nutr 6: 13–40. doi:10.1146/annurev.nu.06.070186.000305.
- Houstis N, Rosen ED, Lander ES (2006) Reactive oxygen species have a causal role in multiple forms of insulin resistance. Nature 440: 944–948. doi:10.1038/nature04634.
- Figueira TR, Barros MH, Camargo AA, Castilho RF, Ferreira JCB, et al. (2013) Mitochondria as a Source of Reactive Oxygen and Nitrogen Species: From Molecular Mechanisms to Human Health. Antioxidants Redox Signal 18: 2029–2074. doi:10.1089/ars.2012.4729.
Nutrition specialist Dr. Dena Herman introduced UCLA students to the molecules of food and nutrition as part of our 2013 Science and Food course. We learned all about essential nutrients, were introduced to the exciting new world of phytonutrients, and even got to make smoothies! Check out the highlights:
Dena Herman, RD, PhD, MPH, is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Her research has focused on improving dietary quality among low-income populations, as well as the development of interventions to reduce childhood obesity.
- What hooked you on science? On food?
- My dad was a chef for Nathan Pritikin, a nutritionist and longevity research pioneer who showed that cardiovascular disease was reversible with diet.
- The coolest example of science in your food?
- I am not sure it is the coolest, but I have always been fascinated by gels and emulsions. For example, vinaigrette dressing: you take 2-3 liquids and simply by the order in which you mix them they become and emulsion, something thicker than what you started with. The same principle applies to a roux: dry + liquid + heat = creamy sauce. How cool is that?
- The food you find most fascinating?
- Injera (Ethiopian flat bread).
- What scientific concept–food related or otherwise–do you find most fascinating?
- Currently I am fascinated with the “-omics.” Genomics, epigenetics, nutrigenomics, etc., and the idea that we are what our grandmothers ate (the idea of life-course health development).
- Your best example of a food that is better because of science?
- I can’t think of one. I believe the best foods are whole foods that have not been “adulterated” by science, i.e. Frankenfoods.
- How does your scientific knowledge or training impact the way you cook? Do you conduct science experiments in the kitchen?
- I have two sons (9 years old and 12 years old). The kitchen is always an experimental station, whether trying new combinations of ingredients to create exciting colorful mixtures (questionably edible), or figuring out ways to make things explode.
- One kitchen tool you could not live without?
- Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
- Plain yogurt, cilantro, chili peppers, kale, raspberries.
- Your all-time favorite ingredient?
- Citrus, especially lemons and limes.
- Favorite cookbook?
- My German cookbooks. They take the simple and make it fabulous.
- Your standard breakfast?
- A kale, blueberry, and tofu shake. Phytonutrient-rich and protein ready.