Forests and Human Health January-09-2012

Current research

Diversity of wild edible tree species - a case study from West Africa

In Africa, the diversity of plant species has brought great benefits to the lives of rural communities. Many indigenous species provide important environmental services or economically valuable products. They serve as alternatives to staple foods during periods of food shortages and are also one of the primary alternative sources of income for many rural communities. This study was conducted in Benin, West Africa. The authors attempted to assess the traditional agroforestry systems. They analyzed the diversity of wild edible tree species and the socio-economic factors related to their use. Data were collected through a field exploration and a semi-structured survey among 435 households throughout the country, using a questionnaire. The results showed that a total of 43 wild edible trees were found in the traditional agroforestry systems of Benin. The authors concluded that there were three main reasons that supported peasants’ ambition to conserve or to grow wild edible trees in their field: their contribution to food, their use in traditional medicine and ceremonies and farmers’ perception of their availability in natural vegetation.

Assogbadjo et al. 2011. Biodiversity and socioeconomic factors supporting farmers’ choice of wild edible trees in the agroforestry systems of Benin (West Africa). Forest Policy and Economics (in press).

A database of food from forests

Plants are the major component in forests. Utilization of other products than wood has been a long tradition in human history. This study conducted by scientists from Norway, Japan and USA, aim develop a comprehensive database consisting of the antioxidant content of typical forest foods as well as other dietary items such as traditional medicine plants, herbs and spices and dietary supplements. The database is intended for use in a wide range of nutritional research, from in vitro and cell and animal studies, to clinical trials and nutritional epidemiological studies.

The researchers in this project procured samples from countries worldwide and assayed the samples for their total antioxidant content using a modified version of the FRAP (ferric-reducing ability of plasma) assay. Results and sample information (such as country of origin, product and/or brand name) were registered for each individual food sample and constitute the Antioxidant Food Table.

The results demonstrate that there are several thousand-fold differences in the antioxidant content of foods. Berries, fruits, nuts, chocolate, vegetables and products thereof are common foods and beverages with high antioxidant values. Some spices, herbs and supplements have exceptionally high antioxidant concentrations.

The database shows that plant-based foods introduce significantly more antioxidants into human diet than non-plant foods. Because of the large variations observed between otherwise comparable food samples the study emphasizes the importance of using a comprehensive database combined with a detailed system for food registration in clinical and epidemiological studies. The present antioxidant database is therefore an essential research tool for the further elucidating of the potential health effects of phytochemical antioxidants in diet.

Carlsen et al. 2010. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutrition Journal. 9:3

(the main results of the present study; the table includes all the 3139 products with product descriptions, details and antioxidant analysis results, categorized into 24 categories and arranged alphabetically within each category. Click here for file)

Research builds an essential bridge between the natural and the human

- Bring mushrooms from the forest to our dinner table (reported by Dr. Da-Peng Bao, Institute of Edible Fungi, Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China, translated by Lu-Min Vaario)

Consuming edible mushrooms has a very long history in China. The first reliable evidence of mushroom consumption dates back to several hundred years BC in China. People had different ways of using this natural product for its nutritional and medicinal values. However, the quantities of wild edible mushrooms in nature were rather limited in view of the large population in China. 30 years ago, China had almost no large-scale artificial cultivation of edible mushrooms. In 1978, mushroom production in China was only 60,000 tons. The price of many edible mushrooms was very high. Consuming edible mushrooms was not for everyone.

In 1960, The Institute of Edible Fungi, Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences (SAAS), was founded through the efforts of several generations of scientists and lots of hard work. Our institute’s mission is to create and develop mushroom cultivation technology and promotethe mushroom industry in China. Nowadays, the mushroom industry in China has become an important part of the rural economy. In 2010, edible fungi in rural China became the sixth largest farming product after grain, cotton, oil, vegetables and fruits. The total Chinese mushroom production was more than 22 million tons in 2010, which is more than 80% of the total global mushroom production. Scientific research has effectively built an essential bridge between nature and humans and brought mushrooms to our daily dinner table.

Our institute now has a staff of 64 people, including 14 senior researchers, 13 doctoral and 23 master's degrees and other visiting fellows. Genetic engineering, germplasm resources, cultivation, processing and fermentation technology, industrial economy and information are our major research areas.

Cultivation and breeding

Nowadays, demand for the utilization of mushrooms has reached an unprecedented height due to their health promoting and medicinal benefits. Screening and selecting pure culture isolates from natural material is an important foundation for the development of the mushroom industry. In 1956 we began to use tissue isolation and spore separation technology, which have successfully produced cultures of more than 10 economically valuable mushroom species, like Agaricus Bisporus, Auricularia polytricha, Lentinus edodes, Hericium erinaceus, Ganoderma lucidum.

Our institute joined other research units in China to carry out a national cross-regional cooperation project on hybrid new species by using protoplast monokaryon as a breeding material. We obtained 10 new varieties of Shiitake which are tolerant of low or high temperatures. Those new varieties of Shiitake mushrooms could meet a wide range of environmental conditions and development needs to improve the quality of mushrooms. The new varieties of Shiitake have since been produced more than 130 billion bags in China, with a total output of more than 280 billion yuan.

Processing technology and fermentation engineering

One of our major tasks is discovering new medicinal uses for mushrooms. Our institute focuses on the chemistry, bioactive components and fermentation processes of medicinal fungi and other natural medicinal resources. Our research, based on the continual assessment of market forces, has successfully produced several health foods, which are manufactured using technology developed in the laboratory.

For example, Ganoderma lucidum, a traditional Chinese medicine, was studied for the immune-activity mechanism of the polysaccharide from this fungus. On the basis of an investigation into biological activity, the health products Lingzhikangtai Powder and wall-broken spore powder from G. Lucidum were developed with the function of helping to inhibit angiogenesis and improve immunoactivity.

In 1970, we began to use the solid fermentation of Hericium erinaceus mycelium and developed Hericium erinaceus pills, which are effective against stomach aches. One health promoting product, HOUGU stomachic capsule, has been developed to protect the gastric mucosa. At the same time, the chemical and pharmacological activity of other medicinal fungi mushrooms such as Cordyceps sinensis, Coprinus comatus, Lentinus edodes, Antrodia camphorate, Agaricus blazei have been investigated in order to establish a basis for further development.

Our institute makes more and more efforts to explore new channels for exchange and cooperation with foreign organization. Since 1991, we have been arranging regular research seminars with several Japanese research institutes. Now we are establishing new academic channels with far-east Asian countries. Many of our researchers have got their PhD degrees in Japan, Germany orHongkong. We believe that international cooperation and information exchange are essential steps in our research.

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Comments: Lu-Min Vaario,