According to a study supported by the São Paulo Research Foundation five fruit trees native to the Atlantic Rainforest have powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
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, such as 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.
"We knew they could contain a large number of anti-oxidants, just like the well-known berries of the US and Europe, such as the blueberry, blackberry, and strawberry, with which scientists are so familiar", told Severino Matias Alencar, from the Department of Agroindustry, Food & Nutrition at University of São Paulo's Luiz de Queiroz Agricultural College (ESALQ-USP) - the institution conducted the research in partnership with the University of Campinas's Piracicaba Dentistry School (FOP-UNICAMP) - both in Piracicaba, São Paulo State, Brazil - and at the University of the Frontier (UFRO) in Temuco, Chile. "Our native berries proved [to be] even better."
Pedro Rosalen, from FOP, 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 anti-oxidant agents, such as flavonoids or anthocyanins from araçá-piranga, E. leitonii, and other fruits of the Eugenias", said Rosalen, coordinator of the project "Bioprospection of novel anti-inflammatory molecules from natural Brazilian native products .
Not only anti-oxidants 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 anti-oxidants."
The study evaluated phenolic compounds - chemicals that can have preventive or curative effects - and the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant mechanisms of material extracted from the five fruits' leaves, seeds, and pulp.
The project studied fruits with strong anti-oxidant activity - for use by the food and pharmaceutical industries - and with anti-inflammatory properties. The standout was E. leitonii, as Rosalen highlighted.
"E. leitonii is an endangered species," Rosalen said. "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."
Market potential - a new açaí?
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," he said.
Alencar believes that it is a matter of time until these fruits 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," said Alencar, referring to the commercial success of the Amazonian berry Euterpe oleracea with large amounts of anti-oxidants. Brazil exports açaí puree to several countries.
The collaborative research project supported by FAPESP and UFRO also extended knowledge of a Chilean native species. In one study, the researchers demonstrated the anti-oxidant and vasodilatory action of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) - food supplements obtained from the fruit and leaves of Chilean guava can have beneficial effects on the prevention and possibly treatment of cardiovascular diseases.
If knowledge of these properties is disseminated, the production of native fruit species could be stimulated, Alencar highlights.
"Even before the project with UFRO, Rosalen and I already studied native fruit species because we believed they could be a source of excellent food solutions for society," he said.
Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo