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College of Human Ecology

Sensory analysts evaluate K-State's new high-calcium leaf lettuce

Monday, January 26, 2009

Using a strategy called biofortification, scientists at K-State and Texas A&M University have boosted the calcium content in lettuce, a step they hope will curb growing national health problems.

First results include a 25 to 32 percent hike in the in-bred calcium supplied by common leaf lettuce.

"We're working to genetically improve what we know are popular vegetables, to make them more nutrient-dense," said Sunghun Park, K-State horticulturist and the project´s lead scientist.  Few vegetables are good sources of calcium.

The research team includes Edgar Chambers IV and Alicia Jenkins with the Sensory Analysis Center, Department of Human Nutrition.

In an unusual move, the researchers submitted their "new" lettuce to the scientific evaluators at the center. The sensory analysts found the enhanced lettuce to be no different from "regular" leaf lettuce in flavor, bitterness or crispness.

A report has been published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal.

Calcium's role

Calcium is best known for its role in strengthening bones and teeth. An estimated 87 percent of American teenage girls and 78 percent of women age 20 and older do not consume enough calcium.

Today, most of the calcium Americans eat comes from  dairy products, according to the Office of the Surgeon General. Some also comes from "fortified" products (orange juice, bread, cereals) and such dark, leafy greens as bok choy, collards and broccoli.

Low bone mass prevalent, costly

The U.S. Office of the Surgeon General projects that by 2015 more than 61 million Americans will be problems with low bone mass or osteoporosis (low bone mass, plus deterioration). That number will include half of all Americans over age 50 in 2020.

The Surgeon General expects hip fracture totals to double or even triple by 2040. Medical expenses from the osteoporosis-related fractures alone add up to $18 billion.

Add more calcium

They hope to boost leaf lettuce calcium content further by methods such as adding calcium to the plants' growing soil and/or immersing the harvested leaves in a calcium-rich solution.

"All we've established explicitly so far is that modifying a single plant-calcium transporter will increase calcium content without having a negative impact on lettuce quality. That's just one step toward getting biofortified lettuce on store shelves. Even so, our scientific approach should now be applicable to numerous other food crops, too," said Mark Elless of Edenspace in Manhattan.

Source: K-State Research and Extension

This article was posted on Monday, January 26, 2009, and is filed under College News, Food, Nutrition, Dietetics and Health.