Powerful New Source of Beta-Carotene in the Works

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U.S. researchers have found a way to enrich the vitamin content of vegetables — and it all started with an orange cauliflower.

Decades ago, a farmer discovered a plant mutation. In his crop of normal, white cauliflower, he found some orange cauliflower. This weird color variation had occurred naturally, but no one knew exactly what had caused it until recently.

Why is it important to find out how this “mutant” orange cauliflower came about? Because the color orange indicates the presence of beta-carotene. This is a plant pigment that gives orange fruits and vegetables, like carrots and cantaloupe, their color. Once you eat something with beta- carotene, your body turns the chemical into vitamin A. This is a very important vitamin for your health.

In the December 2006 issue of the journal “Plant Cell,” a research team reported that they had figured out which gene was behind the color change. The gene has simply been dubbed “Orange.”

The same research team is working on genetically producing crops with this gene. They are trying to improve the ability of cauliflower and other produce to store the beta-carotene once they produce it. Another vegetable they’re working with is the potato.

The point of all of this playing around with the color of vegetables is to engineer them to carry certain nutritional benefits. In this case, scientists want to create a type of crop rich in beta-carotene. This type of vegetable will be especially useful in developing countries, where deficiency in vitamin A is common.

Vitamin A has many important roles in your health. Very importantly, it can improve sight and help prevent eye diseases. It is essential for the development and formation of the ears, eyes, heart, brain, and limb. Vitamin A helps move iron from storage to red blood cells. Red blood cells have the vital roles of carrying oxygen in your body. Vitamin A is essential for normal immune function, maintaining your body’s first line of defense (e.g., the skin, the mucus lining of airways, and the urinary system). Plus, it is needed in the development of white blood cells. Vitamin A could also help prevent cancer by inducing tumor-suppressor genes.

What better way to boost your body’s ability to make vitamin A than by adding a cool new vegetable to your diet? Keep an eye out at your local grocery store for colorful new fruits and vegetables. They’re not just eye candy — they’re also a different way to get the essential nutrients for a healthy body.