Mar. 7, 2013, Guelph, ON - Corn could offer a solution to vision problems that many people face as they age, according to a new study from the University of Guelph.
Researchers at Guelph bred a new strain of corn to contain the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect eyes. The corn was fed to chickens that laid eggs rich in these helpful carotenoids, and the researchers speculated that the carotenoids in the egg yolk would be more concentrated and absorbed better than those ingested directly from corn.
In age-related macular degeneration, a progressive eye disease that is the leading cause of blindness in older adults, the eyes are low in lutein and zeaxanthin. Doctors routinely recommend eating leafy greens, the only other vegetables rich in these antioxidants.
In the paper published in the journal Crop Science, plant agriculture professor Elizabeth Lee reported that the high-carotenoid diet produced eggs containing the antioxidants. Eggs from hens fed this corn contained less lutein than those of hens fed marigold petal extract, the current way of producing high-lutein eggs. But the researchers believe that it is possible to make a new breed of corn that contains more lutein and zeaxanthin, leading to eggs with more of these beneficial compounds, and providing benefits to both egg consumers and corn producers.
Prof. Barry Shelp, Plant Agriculture, also worked on the study. “Elizabeth had theorized that it was possible to breed corn with increased lutein and zeaxanthin, and we wondered whether it was possible to get these antioxidants to people?” he said. “Since most hens are fed corn, the best solution seems to be egg yolks where the carotenoids would be accompanied by oils, which may facilitate absorption by the human body. We found that lutein and zeaxanthin contents of the eggs were increased in hens ingesting this novel corn, so this gives us something to work with.”
The researchers crossed Argentine Orange Flint maize with standard North American corn. The new breed contains more lutein and zeaxanthin than any other corn known.
“This was something that we felt had potential for not just egg producers but also Ontario corn farmers,” said post-doctoral researcher Andrew Burt. “The goal for our team was to take our concept and create products that would be beneficial to farmers and which consumers will want. We still have some work to do, but we proved the concept is a valid one.”
Lee and her team are encouraged by the findings, which show that researchers can breed plants to produce functional foods.
“This is a way in which crop scientists can produce items that have improved nutritional benefits for human health,” she said. “It seems likely that we can achieve greater results in the future, and provide lasting benefits for farmers and consumers.”