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Farming Today report
Vegetables can promote good health
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Saturday, 29 April, 2000, 00:00 GMT 01:00 UK
Vegetables on prescription
Carrots boost the immune system, according to research
Farmers of the future could be growing vegetables such as carrots and watercress for doctors' prescriptions.

Eating your greens has always been thought to be an essential part of staying healthy - they provide roughage, vitamins and minerals.

However, scientists at the Institute for Food Research in Norwich have investigated further - they have unravelled the specific properties of certain vegetables in preventing cancer.

Dr David Hughes, from the institute, said: "The work that we have been carrying out is looking at potential mechanisms by which these compounds can have an effect on the immune cells that fight off cancers within the body."

We can perhaps enhance immune function in the elderly population to that of younger individuals by dietary means

Dr David Hughes, Institute of Food Research

Dr Hughes said work had focused particularly on beta carotene, the compound which gives carrots their orange colour.

Researchers have been feeding beta carotene to healthy male volunteers and monitoring the effect on the body's immune cells.

"The evidence that we have found suggests that beta carotene at a level that you can achieve within the diet by just eating carrots and other highly pigmented fruits and vegetables such as broccoli and apricots does give a beneficial effect into the immune system."

Dr Hughes said his team were particularly interested in the potential effect on the elderly.

"There is quite a bit of evidence now to show that our immune system declines with age, and there is also some evidence that we can perhaps enhance immune function in the elderly population to that of younger individuals by dietary means."

Watercress benefits

Another food that has been the subject of research is watercress.

Dr Richard Mithen, at the John Innes Centre, has recently discovered that it activates a protective reaction to cancer when it is eaten.

"We have shown that a group of compounds that are found in relatively low levels in watercress have a very strong potency in switching on protective enzymes after we eat it."

He said the leafy vegetable was also packed full of other ingredients - such as minerals and vitamins - which have a beneficial effect on health.

Pill development

Both Dr Hughes and Dr Mithen, however, caution against any attempt to extract active ingredients from vegetables and market them in pill form.

Dr Hughes said: "The bulk of the scientific evidence showing a beneficial effect is from people who have a broad range of consumption of fruit and vegetables.

"I think we are a long way off extracting all those important compounds that are present in them into a pill."

Dr Mithen said some plant chemicals were effective only in low concentrations, and that it was possible that people could "overdose" if they took a concentrated pill form.

An edited version of a piece first broadcast on BBC Radio Four's Farming Today, Tuesday 25 April 2000.

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