Greek scientists devise foods with antioxidant benefits

A new discovery by Thessaly University’s biochemistry and biotechnology department has opened up possibilities for developing biofunctional food, a consumer product sector that is flourishing abroad and which can boost the economy of the Greek countryside. Researchers have managed to make a yogurt with a vasodilatory effect, based on a variety of grapes in the region of Tyrnavos that have high concentrations of antioxidants. Dimitris Kouretas, who heads the research team, spends much of his life traveling around Greece looking for plants with interesting biological properties, such as, among other things, substances with anti-carcinogenic, antilipidemic and antimicrobial action. The results of his research are entered into a data bank that highlights the wealth of unexploited material that is growing out of the earth around the country. «There are thousands of plants in this country with rare aromatic or pharmaceutical properties. More than half the plants in Europe that are of interest for these purposes are native to or are being cultivated in this country,» said Kouretas. The reason for such a vast variety is the climate, the variety in the geomorphology of the Greek landscape and the farming methods used by Greeks over the centuries. Most of these plants cannot be reproduced in the laboratory but, even if they could, it is doubtful whether any commercial firm would try, given that nature is the best laboratory in most cases. «On one of my trips around Tyrnavos, I found this particular variety of grape which presents high concentrations of polyphenols, a substance with high antioxidant action.» Free radicals damage cells just like rust damages metals and are thought to be responsible for the appearance of a number of diseases, such as diabetes, some forms of cardiovascular disease and cancer. «Our body has natural antioxidant mechanisms that regulate this problem. Another way to protect ourselves is through diet and that is why we are always recommending the consumption of green vegetables and other foods with antioxidant effects, such as lemons and grapes,» said Kouretas. «However, it isn’t always possible to find all the foods we need so what we do is isolate the antioxidant elements by making extracts that we then add to inert foods, such as dairy products.» Thanks to technology developed at the pharmaceutical department of Athens University by Professor Leandros Skaltsounis, researchers were able to isolate one gram of extract for every kilo of grapes, a quantity considered to be far greater than that produced by existing technology and which will make it easier to exploit the discovery commercially. The effect of the extract was checked in clinical trails carried out by the team of cardiologist Dimitris Kremastinos. «Specifically, just an hour after taking the extract, the diameter of the main arteries was seen to double,» said Kouretas. The question now is whether the patent will find its way to consumers. So far, various firms have indicated an interest, but only one appears ready to move ahead. «If all goes well, then by the end of the year there will be bread products on the shelves containing the extract,» said Kouretas, who foresees prospects for a domestic green biotechnology industry in the countryside. There are also plans for a yogurt and a fruit drink. «There are plants in the Greek countryside which could provide impressive business opportunities in biofunctional foods, a sector that is flourishing abroad.»