University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers have found that lipids in grain sorghum lower cholesterol levels and intestinal bowel inflammation in lab animals. Those scientists are working to figure out exactly how in an attempt to create food products that could manage both conditions in humans.
The research is part of UNL's emphasis on "functional foods," which are dietary systems containing natural agents designed to impart certain health benefits, including prevention of a variety of diseases. The work involves scientists from several disciplines.
Reducing LDL cholesterol is a key strategy to reducing coronary heart disease, which is a major cause of death in the United States and other countries, says Vicki Schlegel, UNL food scientist and part of the research team.
"Statin drugs are effective and widely prescribed, but they are expensive and can have serious side effects," she says.
Moreover, inflammation of the bowel has been linked to many intestinal disorders, including colon cancer. Scientists from UNL and elsewhere are trying to find nondrug strategies, such as functional foods, to replace drugs.
Grain sorghum is a rich source of several chemicals that can decrease cholesterol in addition to preventing inflammation but has been largely overlooked for human consumption in the U.S. Although the U.S. is the world's leading producer and exporter of grain sorghum, most of the crop in this country is used for animal feed and ethanol production.
The UNL research focused on the extractable lipid fraction of grain sorghum whole kernels and their effect on cholesterol metabolism in hamsters, which have similar lipid cholesterol metabolism as humans.
Scientists found that hamsters fed a diet supplemented with grain sorghum lipids had significantly lower cholesterol and liver cholesterol levels, Schlegel says. "These concentrations were in the metabolic ranges known to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease in humans. They probably prevented cholesterol from absorbing through the large intestine. It just passed through."
The UNL scientists also recently determined that the fatty diet fed to the animals not only increased cholesterol but also intestinal inflammation. However, Schlegel explains, sorghum supplementation was able to remediate many markers of this cellular stress. How it does this, well, that is the next step in our research."
Ongoing research includes determining the specific components responsible for both responses. Then, scientists hope to incorporate those into a food ingredient for humans.
In addition to its human-health implications, such ingredients also could raise the value of sorghum for producers, Schlegel notes.
Although the UNL research focused on whole kernel sorghum, the components responsible for these health benefits also can be extracted from sorghum-ethanol byproducts, which would improve the economics of that ethanol production since those byproducts now are used, if at all, as animal feed.