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Interview with Jairam Vanamala

Associate Professor of Food Science.

Jairam Vanamala

You study the role of food in contributing to or preventing disease. Why is this important?

Many chronic diseases, such as colon cancer and metabolic syndrome, are caused by chronic inflammation in the body. We are learning that food and food components can either contribute to this inflammation or prevent it. Because we now have this deeper understanding, for the first time in human history, we have the ability to develop food as a medicine.

What are some applications of your work?

By tracking how certain foods promote or prevent inflammation, we can develop evidence-based food products that improve health, and we can also develop dietary recommendations about which foods to choose and which ones to avoid.

Which foods have you investigated?

We have done much work on the potato because it is eaten around the world. We wanted to know how the health attributes of different colors of potato—such as white, red, and blue—were affected by farm-to-fork operations; for example, by cultivar type and by storage and preparation methods, such as baking, French frying, or microwaving.

What have you learned?

We have found that the interaction between the variety of the potato and the method used to process the potato is the most important factor in determining its health properties. For example, blue potatoes contain anthocyanins (antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds), whereas white potatoes do not. However, 80 percent of these anthocyanins are lost during frying. More than 50 percent are retained with baking, microwaving, and steaming.

How do these different potato colors and preparations affect the body?

We have found that purple potatoes—even after baking—not only can prevent, but also can reverse, oxidative stress and chronic inflammation induced by a high-calorie diet. In addition, our research suggests that food components, like anthocyanins, affect not only the health of our bodies but also the health of trillions of bacteria in our gut. The health of these bacteria, in turn, dictates the overall health of the host—us. How you process the food can have great implications for what nutrients are available to you and to the bacteria, and can affect how homeostasis [balance] is maintained. More healthful foods help the body maintain homeostasis, whereas foods that are not as healthful and are prepared in ways such as deep-frying can offset this balance and lead to disease.

Are you developing specific food products for the market?

We are trying to develop novel processing methods to retain more of the health-benefiting compounds and reduce the toxic compounds in foods that people consume around the world, such as potato chips. We also are investigating the development of diets containing nutritionally well-characterized foods with defined cultivars and processing methods to maximize their health benefits to consumers, and reduce the risk for chronic inflammation-promoted diseases such as colon cancer and type 2 diabetes. Ultimately, our long-term research goal is to improve the health profiles of food products and provide modern evidence for ancient wisdom on diet and disease. Finally, we are developing dietary recommendations based on our knowledge of how food affects the body. For example, we might recommend including more purple potatoes in the diet compared to white potatoes.

Interview by Sara LaJeunesse