Britt Burton-Freeman, PhDBritt Burton-Freeman, PhD, is research assistant professor and director of nutrition at the Institute for Food Safety and Health, a research consortium consisting of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Illinois Institute of Technology and the food industry.

Functional Ingredients: What is the latest news in our understanding of aging, and how we might experience it in a healthier way?

Britt Burton-Freeman: The long-term impact of oxidative stress has been a hot topic for the last decade or more. More recently, inflammation has been gaining momentum, and in particular, how certain nutrients found in foods can have a positive impact on inflammatory pathways. Oxidative stress and inflammation are linked; there are cellular mechanisms and genetic factors common to both.

Fi: How, exactly, do foods affect cellular inflammation?

BB: There are foods that fit in the classic antioxidant category, such as vitamin C, but there are also phytonutrients that circulate in the body at much lower concentrations. For these, it’s less about the fact they are antioxidants than the fact they act to modulate cell-signaling pathways. Scientific evidence is accumulating showing that they have a role in heart disease and the atherosclerotic process, as well as other chronic diseases.

Fi: Do we have concrete evidence of this outside the test tube?

BB: No, we don’t. This is an area under intense investigation, but the evidence is based on in vitro data, in vivo animal, observational epidemiological research, and some clinical research using biomarkers. Clinical studies (randomized control trials) are the gold standard and are needed to understand cause and effect.

You can’t go in and dissect a person’s aorta to study inflammation in the vessel, but you can look at certain inflammation markers and other proteins that circulate in the blood when inflammation is present, such as C-reactive protein. Our lab also looks at LDL, the bad cholesterol. When there is a lot of oxidative stress, it gets oxidized. Elevated levels of oxidized LDL tell about oxidative stress in the body. But importantly, oxidized LDL promotes inflammation in vessel walls, and therefore is more harmful to vessels than un-oxidized LDL; it thus promotes atherosclerosis.

Fi: How does this relate to aging?

BB: With aging, we are less able to accommodate the daily stressors or imbalances we could when we were young. It’s hard to say what comes first, daily insults breaking down compensatory processes or compensatory processes breaking down and therefore not able to handle insults. But we do know that a standard American meal—a meal high in readily available carbs and fat—can increase markers of inflammation and oxidized LDL.

However, several research groups, including ours, have shown that consuming certain fruits or vegetables, or red wine, along with meals, can block the increases in oxidative stress and inflammation. What this means is you are putting your body under undue stress on a meal-to-meal basis, depending on what you eat. The cumulative effect over 10, 20, 30 years manifests what we know as chronic disease.

Unfortunately, you can’t just go healthy for a day. It really is about choices and behaviors practiced over a lifetime, and what happens on a day-to-day basis. But it’s never too early to start! Studies are going on now examining how inclusion of certain fruits, extracts, or fats in the diet can slow or prevent the transition from insulin resistance to diabetes, improve cognitive function in people who have mild cognitive impairment, or keep people with elevated blood pressure out of the range requiring medication.

Fi: What are the foods or nutrients that have this inflammation-inhibitory benefit?

BB: Fruits with high polyphenol content, such as strawberries. Orange juice and tomato paste have also been reported to have anti-inflammatory properties. Likewise, certain herbs and spices show favorable anti-inflammatory effects. And of course, omega-3 fatty acids consistently show anti-inflammatory effects when consumed.

Burton-Freeman will be presenting "Inflammation: The Next Business Opportunity" from 2:45-3:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 8, as part of Nutracon 2012 in Anaheim, Calif. For more information, or to register for Nutracon, please visit www.nutraconference.com.