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Berry wine, minus the alcohol, may offer help for those with diabetes

URBANA, Ill. – Blueberries, and berries in general, are among foods labeled as “diabetes superfoods” by the American Association of Diabetes. Food science researchers at the University of Illinois have found that fermenting berries may improve their antidiabetic potential even more.

Recent research at the U of I includes the development of an alcohol-free blueberry-blackberry “wine” that those suffering from diabetes—who typically must avoid alcohol—can enjoy, while potentially reducing the effects of Type 2 diabetes.

“Unfortunately the number of people with diabetes is increasing astronomically around the world,” says Elvira de Mejia, a food chemist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I. “There are 100 million people around the world who have diabetes and that is increasing, without counting the ones who may be pre-diabetic and not know it.”

Previous research has shown that dietary blueberries may play a role in reducing hyperglycemia in obese mice, therefore de Mejia and colleagues wanted to determine if a fermented, dealcoholized blueberry-blackberry beverage would enhance the potential of the phenolic compounds in the berries that are responsible for reducing diabetic markers.

A new study shows that the fermented berry beverage did reduce the development of obesity and blood glucose levels in mice on a high-fat diet.

The researchers had already determined that the berries, when fermented at low temperatures, resulted in an improved and higher concentration of anthocyanins. Anthocyanins, found in the pigments of fruits such as blueberries, grapes, and apples, have been shown to promote insulin sensitivity, decrease blood glucose levels in the blood, and enhance insulin secretion.

“We know that fruits, vegetables, cereals, legumes, and berries are good, but here we explain that after fermentation we improve and increase the concentration of these pigments [anthocyanins] and they are very high antioxidant components that benefit the body,” de Mejia says.

A previous cell culture study with the alcohol-free blueberry-blackberry wine, showed good results toward inhibiting enzymes related to glucose absorption.

“In this in vivo study, as we increased the concentration of these anthocyanin-enriched extractions from blueberries and blackberries we saw an improvement in the uptake of glucose, meaning that the animals with the increased concentration were not as much in a state of hyperglycemia as the other animals.”

The beverage included a ratio of 70 percent fermented blackberries to 30 percent fermented blueberries. The berries were collected from varieties grown at U of I’s Dixon Springs Agricultural Research Station in southern Illinois. Alcohol was removed from the beverage by rotoevaporation and was replaced with water. Some of the sugars left over after fermentation were also removed in the process.

“We optimized the best ratio between blueberries and blackberries. Blackberries are very unique and I think that’s one of the reasons why we selected a high concentration of them in this study. Blackberries have a very specific profile of anthocyanins, and that was amazing at lowering the absorption of glucose in this case,” de Mejia says.

During the study, groups of mice with diet-induced obesity and hyperglycemia were given the fermented berry beverage or the beverage with higher or lower enriched concentrations of the anthocyanins (0.1x, 1x, or 2x). Another group was given sitagliptin, a commonly used medication for diabetes, and another group was given water only. All groups ate the same diet, calories, and amount of sugars otherwise.

While benefits were seen in all groups drinking the fermented beverage, de Mejia says the group on the highest concentration of anthocyanins (2x) showed the greatest results, comparable to what was observed in the group on sitagliptin. This included no increase in body weight, which de Mejia says was a surprise.

“That was not our objective really, we were just looking for markers of diabetes,” she says. “But it was very impressive to see.”

The researchers also observed that glucose was deposited into tissue more than absorbed by and present in the blood, as well. “You want to avoid high glucose in the blood stream, and you want uptake into muscle, liver, and organs, and to keep the level in plasma and blood normal. We saw a reduction of glucose in the blood with the beverage, even in the beverage before it was enhanced,” de Mejia says.

They also saw an effect on oxidative stress in the obese mice.  “We saw that in the animals on 2x the enriched anthocyanins, the oxidative species went down, meaning they were kind of protected against oxidation. From that stand point, it was very positive looking at the oxidative stress of the animals because that can damage protein and DNA.”

Regarding the mechanism of action in reducing the diabetic effects, de Mejia says that the antioxidant power of the anthocyanins plays a very important role. “Markers of inflammation went down too. That’s very, very, important. They are correlated. With obesity, less fat means less inflammation, and less oxidative stress. I think it is more toward that pathway of lowering oxidative stress and inflammation and lowering fat.  It was very surprising to us,” she adds.

Producing this berry wine, complete with the benefits of fermentation but without the alcohol, provides an opportunity for wine makers, de Mejia says.

“There are some bigger wineries/companies that are producing dealcoholized wine for diabetics, but from grapes. It is available in California, for example.  I think the novelty of this work is mainly the combination of the blackberries and blueberries and the concentration of anthocyanins as part of the pigment. But it is perfectly doable and I hope that companies can see that there is a market. And it’s delicious,” she adds.

While the berry wine may not be able to replace medications for diabetics, de Mejia says it could help reduce the amount of medication needed; always under the doctor’s supervision and approval.

“There needs to be more studies to see how the anthocyanins work in the presence of medication, to see if they work synergistically, for example. Then, maybe, you could decrease the amount of the drug. All of these drugs for diabetes have adverse effects after so many years of use, even the safest ones.

“We need to consider diet, exercise, lowering body weight, and all the different strategies that the American Association of Diabetes recommends, and maybe in the long run, of course with approval of a physician, you could decrease the level of the drug to keep glucose under control.”

“Alcohol-free fermented blueberry-blackberry beverage phenolic extract attenuates diet-induced obesity and blood glucose in C57BL/6J mice” is published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. Co-authors include Michelle H. Johnson, Matthew Wallig, Diego A. Luna Vital, and Elvira G de Mejia. The paper can be accessed online at

Original story posted here:

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Elvira de Mejia

Dr. Elvira de Mejia

Molecular mechanisms of chemoprevention of bioactive food components, mainly proteins and flavonoids, and their safety.We study food components with health benefits; analysis, characterization and mechanism of action of antimutagenic and anticarcinogenic compounds in foods (legumes, oilseeds and vegetables). We currently are working with bioactive proteins in different legumes. Our research group investigates the role of processing on the presence, concentration and physicochemical characteristics of proteins with biological potential against transformed human cells as well as their safety, such as allergenic potential. We also are studying the health benefits of tea, in particular the molecular mechanisms underlying the biological effects of ethnic teas used in folk medicine to combat several disorders, including cancer. This scientific study will introduce new materials to improve human health.

Professor;; more detail here.

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Kraft, U of I announce new research collaboration to affordably derive food colors from corn

Original story posted here November 6, 2014.

URBANA, Ill. – Building on a long-standing relationship of innovation and cooperation, the University of Illinois and Kraft Foods Group, Inc., this week announced a new research collaboration focused on developing affordable food colors derived from natural sources.

The project will focus on the economic and technical feasibility of extracting food colors from corn and incorporating them into food and beverages. The three-year project will be broken into two phases, bringing together a wide range of interdisciplinary talent and technical expertise within the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, including the Departments of Crop Sciences, Food Science and Human Nutrition, Agricultural and Consumer Economics, and Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

Kraft Foods is providing $1.4 million in funding to the College of ACES for the research project as well as an additional $150,000 for fellowships for the university.

“We are always looking for ways to offer choices and remain relevant to consumers’ changing needs,” said Chuck Davis, Executive Vice President, Research, Development, Quality and Innovation for Kraft. “This includes everything from improved nutrition to simpler ingredients. We have made great progress but it truly is a long-term journey. That’s why we’re excited to announce our collaboration with the U of I that approaches the research process in such an innovative way.”

Jack Juvik, a U of I crop sciences professor of plant physiology and principal investigator for the project, said maize (corn) was recommended to Kraft as an economically feasible source for food colors as ingredients in many packaged foods and beverages.

“Looking at the economics, corn has a sophisticated supply chain that allows it to go into many different products. This is a value-added opportunity for the industry; it’s not just a special product grown for colors,” Juvik said. “It’s also a good vehicle because there is a lot of corn grown already, and producers know how to grow and process it. We have to design the data to see what kind of recovery we can get and to figure out the forms that are most appropriate for foods, as well as their stability in foods.”

Juvik also explained that the naturally-occurring compounds, anthocyanins, in corn would be used as the source of food coloring.

Anthocyanins are pigments found in the tissues of plants (leaves, roots, stems, flowers) that impart red, blue, and purple colors. In the Kraft and U of I project, researchers will look at the anthocyanins in the pericarp or outer portion of the kernel of corn, especially in “purple corn,” or “Indian corn” lines, which have been a staple food for humans for thousands of years.

“Our end goal is to develop cost-effective red and purple food colors derived from corn to deliver on some consumers’ preference for ingredients from natural sources, said Nigel Kirtley, Vice President, Research and Supplier Integration at Kraft. The outcomes of this research could also provide American farmers with another crop opportunity and highlight new ways the food industry and academia can collaborate in mutually beneficial ways.”

Along with Juvik, the rest of the interdisciplinary team is made up of Elvira de Meija, a professor of food science and human nutrition; Vijay Singh, a professor of food and bioprocess engineering; and Gary Schnitkey, a professor of agricultural economics. The team will be evaluating several maize lines to look at the composition and determine what lines contain the most anthocyanins, what forms have stability in food, environmental factors and how they influence color and stability, costs related to extraction, and what processing techniques will be the most effective at removing the pericarp and retaining co-products that feed into current co-product streams. The economic potential of using colors derived from corn in food and beverages will also be determined.

“We will do tests in the laboratory and the field and determine the economic feasibility of this,” Juvik said. “It is a preliminary study that could lead to something very big.”

This collaborative effort serves to improve U of I faculty engagement with Kraft Foods and the food processing industry, to promote a pipeline for U of I graduates to explore internship and career opportunities with Kraft, and to pave the way for future research opportunities between the company and the university.

Kraft and the U of I have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship for many years spanning a number of disciplines from undergraduate, graduate and faculty support to research partnerships and apprentice programs,” said Davis. “This project is a great continuation of what has been a long-standing heritage of innovation and cooperation between these two great organizations.”

Over the years, Kraft has provided undergraduate scholarships for students from under-represented groups, fellowships in nutritional sciences and health and wellness, an endowed professorship made possible by a $1 million grant in 2006, as well as College of ACES advisory committee participation.

News Source: Jack Juvik, 217-333-1966

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Lunasin: Epigenetic Revolution in Health & Nutrition

October 22, 2014 lecture by Professor Elvira de Mejia discussing Lunasin in a video by Reliv International. Published November 11, 2014. YouTube page is here.

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Illinois scientists work with World Health Organization on fortifying condiments, seasonings

URBANA, Ill. – Two University of Illinois scientists are contributing to World Health Organization (WHO) efforts to fortify condiments and seasonings for use in countries with widespread micronutrient deficiencies.

“In some countries where these deficiencies are widespread, there is consistent use—almost a daily dose—of certain condiments and seasonings, such as soy sauce in Southeast Asia, at all socioeconomic levels, and there’s a real opportunity to correct deficiencies by fortifying these food items,” said Luis A. Mejia, a U of I adjunct professor in food science and human nutrition.

According to Mejia, micronutrient deficiencies affect the health and cognitive development of at least one-third of the world’s population, representing 7.3 percent of all global disease. The World Bank has called micronutrient fortification the most cost-effective of all health interventions.

“Just as iodine deficiency has been controlled for many years in the U.S. through salt fortification, we now hope to offer a framework to enrich foods with iron, vitamin A, and other micronutrients in the developing world. Pregnant women are particularly in need of folic acid and zinc to deliver healthy children,” said Allyson Bower, a doctoral student in the U of I Division of Nutritional Sciences.

Micronutrient deficiencies are a real problem in Southeast Asia, specifically in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia; and they also occur in West Africa and in Central America, she added.

Mejia pioneered the fortification of sugar with vitamin A in Guatemala as a scientist at the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP), and the program was later expanded to the rest of Central America. Because no single condiment or seasoning is consumed regularly there, sugar was chosen as the vehicle for enrichment.

“Fighting micronutrient deficiencies in this way hinges on finding a suitable food to fortify, and the vehicle chosen is usually a prominent part of the diet in a particular culture. Soy and fish sauces are promising vehicles in Southeast Asia, but bouillon cubes are better suited to West Africa and curry powder would be a better choice in India and Pakistan,” Bower said.

When a suitable condiment or seasoning is chosen, the legal framework that surrounds fortification becomes important. That’s what the two researchers are working on now.

“For example, Vietnam has a soy sauce fortification program, but Indonesia doesn’t. Indonesia does have regulations that allow fortification of wheat flour, margarine, and rice, but not condiments. So we can tell WHO that the legal framework is present in Indonesia and recommend that the organization expand its efforts there,” Mejia said.

Bower is excited about the opportunity to be involved in this project because it has global implications. “Sometimes it seems that the research you’re doing can only be applied at a certain ‘niche’ level, but when you’re working with the WHO, you know they’re going to take what you do and apply it to something that’s long-term and worthwhile. It’s especially rewarding to work on a project like this,” she said.

Mejia and Bower will contribute their recommendations to a WHO meeting in New York August 26-28. Elvira de Mejia, another U of I food science and human nutrition professor, and her collaborators, Yolanda Aguilera and Maria Martin of the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain, will submit recommendations on industrial processing of condiments and seasonings worldwide.

Other research teams are investigating the bioavailability of micronutrients in fortified foods, their efficacy, the stability of the added ingredients in foods, and economic feasibility, among other concerns. All findings in the WHO’s Fortification of Condiments and Seasonings with Vitamins and Minerals in Public Health: From Proof of Concept to Scaling Up will be published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science.

News source: Luis Mejia, 217-762-3657

Original story posted here.

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Celery, artichokes contain flavonoids that kill human pancreatic cancer cells

URBANA, Ill. – Celery, artichokes, and herbs, especially Mexican oregano, all contain apigenin and luteolin, flavonoids that kill human pancreatic cancer cells in the lab by inhibiting an important enzyme, according to two new University of Illinois studies.

“Apigenin alone induced cell death in two aggressive human pancreatic cancer cell lines. But we received the best results when we pre-treated cancer cells with apigenin for 24 hours, then applied the chemotherapeutic drug gemcitabine for 36 hours,” said Elvira de Mejia, a U of I professor of food chemistry and food toxicology.

The trick seemed to be using the flavonoids as a pre-treatment instead of applying them and the chemotherapeutic drug simultaneously, said Jodee Johnson, a doctoral student in de Mejia’s lab who has since graduated.

“Even though the topic is still controversial, our study indicated that taking antioxidant supplements on the same day as chemotherapeutic drugs may negate the effect of those drugs,” she said.

“That happens because flavonoids can act as antioxidants. One of the ways that chemotherapeutic drugs kill cells is based on their pro-oxidant activity, meaning that flavonoids and chemotherapeutic drugs may compete with each other when they’re introduced at the same time,” she explained.

Pancreatic cancer is a very aggressive cancer, and there are few early symptoms, meaning that the disease is often not found before it has spread. Ultimately the goal is to develop a cure, but prolonging the lives of patients would be a significant development, Johnson added.

It is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths, with a five-year survival rate of only 6 percent, she said.

The scientists found that apigenin inhibited an enzyme called glycogen synthase kinase-3β (GSK-3β), which led to a decrease in the production of anti-apoptotic genes in the pancreatic cancer cells. Apoptosis means that the cancer cell self-destructs because its DNA has been damaged.

In one of the cancer cell lines, the percentage of cells undergoing apoptosis went from 8.4 percent in cells that had not been treated with the flavonoid to 43.8 percent in cells that had been treated with a 50-micromolar dose. In this case, no chemotherapy drug had been added.

Treatment with the flavonoid also modified gene expression. “Certain genes associated with pro-inflammatory cytokines were highly upregulated,” de Mejia said.

According to Johnson, the scientists’ in vitro study in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research is the first to show that apigenin treatment can lead to an increase in interleukin 17s in pancreatic cells, showing its potential relevance in anti-pancreatic cancer activity.

Pancreatic cancer patients would probably not be able to eat enough flavonoid-rich foods to raise blood plasma levels of the flavonoid to an effective level. But scientists could design drugs that would achieve those concentrations, de Mejia said.

And prevention of this frightening disease is another story. “If you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables throughout your life, you’ll have chronic exposure to these bioactive flavonoids, which would certainly help to reduce the risk of cancer,” she noted.

Flavonoid apigenin modified gene expression associated with inflammation and cancer and induced apoptosis in human pancreatic cancer cells through inhibition of GSK-3β/NF-κB signaling cascade is available pre-publication online in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research at

Interactions between dietary flavonoids apigenin or luteolin and chemotherapeutic drugs to potentiate anti-proliferative effect on human pancreatic cancer cells in vitro is available pre-publication online in Food and Chemical Toxicology at

The U of I’s J.L. Johnson and E. Gonzalez de Mejia co-authored both studies, which were funded by USDA.


Original story posted here.

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Arginine Glycine Aspartic Acid Motif Peptide Potentiates the Effect of Oxaliplatin

Professor Elvira de Mejia lecturing on “Arginine Glycine Aspartic Acid Motif Peptide Potentiates the Effect of Oxaliplatin,” as part of the Illinois Cancer Community Symposium 2012. Published on May 9, 2012. Lecture posted by NanoBio Node; YouTube page is here.


Elvira de Mejia (2012), “[Illinois] Cancer Community Symposium 2012: Arginine Glycine Aspartic Acid Motif Peptide Potentiates the Effect of Oxaliplatin Preventing Colon Cancer Metastasis, Binds to α5 β1 Integrin and Suppresses FAK/ERK/NF-kB Signaling,”

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