01 Nov 2017 - According to a study supported by the São Paulo Research Foundation, five fruit trees native to Brazil's Atlantic Rainforest biome have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as outstanding as those of blueberries, cranberries, blackberries and strawberries. The species’ properties include the capacity to combat free radicals – unstable, highly reactive atoms that bind to other atoms in the organism and cause damage, such as cellular aging or disease.
The research states that native Brazilian species araçá-piranga (E. leitonii), cereja-do-rio-grande (E. involucrata), grumixama (E. brasiliensis) e ubajaí (E. myrcianthes) – all from genus Eugenia – and bacupari-mirim (Garcinia brasiliensis) are examples of functional foods, which besides vitamins and nutritional values, have bioactive properties.
Help with combating free radicals
“We knew they could contain a large number of antioxidants, just like the well-known berries of the US and Europe, such as the blueberry, blackberry, and strawberry, with which scientists are so familiar,” says Severino Matias Alencar, from the Department of Agroindustry, Food & Nutrition at the University of São Paulo's Luiz de Queiroz Agricultural College. “Our native berries proved [to be] even better.”
Pedro Rosalen, from the University of Campinas's Piracicaba Dentistry School, says that diet is strategic in combating free radicals. Although our body contains substances that neutralize and eliminate free radicals, this natural neutralization can be unbalanced by means of age, stress and poor alimentation.
“If so, exogenous elements are required, particularly the intake of foods with antioxidant agents, such as flavonoids or anthocyanins from araçá-piranga, E. leitonii, and other fruits of the Eugenias,” says Rosalen, coordinator of the “Bioprospection of novel anti-inflammatory molecules from natural Brazilian native products” project.
Not only do antioxidants fight aging, but they also work in the prevention of diseases mediated by chronic inflammation, explains Rosalen: “The oxidative action of free radicals leads to the appearance of dependent inflammatory diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, arthritis, obesity and Alzheimer's. These are silent inflammations, hence the importance of antioxidants.”
The study evaluated phenolic compounds – chemicals that can have preventive or curative effects – and the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant mechanisms of material extracted from the five fruits’ leaves, seeds and pulp.
The project studied fruits with strong antioxidant activity – for use by the food and pharmaceutical industries – and with anti-inflammatory properties. The standout was E. leitonii, according to Rosalen.
“E. leitonii is an endangered species,” Rosalen says. “Its anti-inflammatory activity far exceeded that of other Eugenias. The action mechanism is also extremely interesting. It occurs spontaneously and right at the start of the inflammation, blocking a specific pathway in the inflammatory process.”
“It also acts on the endothelium of blood vessels, preventing leukocytes from transmigrating to the damaged tissue and reducing exacerbation of the inflammatory process,” Rosalen adds.
Market potential – a new açaí?
Alencar believes that it is a matter of time until these fruits are highly ranked as fashionable foods. The scientist states that they have a vast economic and pharmacological potential, evidenced not only by many scientific publications but also by trade of their edible fruits, wood and essential oils and their use as ornamental plants.
“There wasn't much scientific knowledge about the properties of these native fruits. The idea now, with the results of our study, is for them to be grown by family farmers, increase production scale and be taken up by retailers. Who knows? They could be the next açaí,” says Alencar, referring to the commercial success of the Amazonian berry Euterpe oleracea with large amounts of antioxidants. Brazil exports açaí puree to several countries.
Because these species are increasingly rare and some are classified as endangered, the samples for the study were supplied by two small farms in the interior of São Paulo State. Both sell plants with conservational aims. One of the farmers owns Brazil's largest native fruit collection, with over 1,300 species under cultivation.
Rosalen adds that Brazil has some 400 Eugenias including several endemic species: “We have an enormous number of native fruit trees with bioactive compounds that could benefit people's health. They should be studied.”