KINGSTON, R.I., February 13, 2018 — The United States Department of Agriculture has awarded two University of Rhode Island researchers $470,000 to advance their pioneering work exploring the anti-inflammatory properties of maple syrup phytochemicals.
Navindra Seeram and Angela Slitt, associate professors of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences in the College of Pharmacy, are co-investigators on the two-year project.
The study, titled “Beneficial effects of maple syrup phytochemicals against inflammation associated with metabolic syndrome,” aims to evaluate the anti-inflammatory effects of a polyphenol-enriched maple syrup extract in mice fed a high-fat diet and in human fat cell samples. “We see this as the next step in understanding the biological effects of these compounds,” Seeram said.
“We are looking for evidence that the extract impedes inflammation. The data suggest it does so in cell-based models, but there is still much work to do,” Slitt noted. “We want to ensure the extract is effective and safe and we understand how it works before we eventually translate the work into human clinical studies.”
The USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, part of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is funding the work through its Function and Efficacy of Foods program area.
“You can’t outsource this agricultural product. You can’t make maple syrup in China; you can’t make it in India,” Seeram said of the relevance of conducting such research at URI. Sugar maple trees, which produce the sap from which most syrup is made, are found only in northeastern Canada and the United States.
“This research creates a basis to ask bigger questions,” said Slitt, who brings expertise in toxicology and animal studies to the research. “What’s the implication for human health, impact of food decisions and risk of disease. It could help inform consumers. Maybe it has some benefits or maybe there is no difference.”
Slitt and Seeram began studying the anti-inflammatory properties of maple syrup phytochemicals a decade ago when the Federation of Maple Syrup Producers of Quebec, in collaboration with the Canadian Conseil pour le developpement de l’agriculture du Quebec and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, offered to fund research led by Seeram, an expert in isolating compounds from plant foods. That work identified or confirmed 67 compounds in pure maple syrup that may play a key role in human health, garnering international media attention.
While learning that such a tasty treat might convey health benefits naturally captures the attention of the public and news media, Seeram stresses that neither he nor Slitt is suggesting people add maple syrup to their diets. “We have never promoted eating more sugar,” he said. “Drizzle, don’t guzzle. Don’t add it to your diet if you do not use sweeteners; but if you are using refined sugars, consider replacing them with maple syrup, within a healthy diet and lifestyle.”
The agency also awarded Seeram a one-year, $150,000 grant to study the quality, shelf-life stability and authentication of commercial maple water products. He will examine the chemical composition of maple water and identify standards for the product which, like coconut water, is growing in popularity as a “functional beverage,” which is intended to provide health benefits.
To successfully secure federal funding for their work, Seeram and Slitt first conducted a pilot study of the maple syrup extract, which they isolated from maple byproducts, with $13,700 in funding from URI’s Council for Research. Data from this initial animal study helped them win the USDA grant.