HOUSTON — The number of people across the globe who are underweight has declined to less than 1 billion in the last decade, while the world’s overweight population has grown to more than 1.1 billion, according to Dr. Thomas Lumpkin, with the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan.
Lumpkin presented this contrast at the International Symposium on Human Health Effects of Fruits and Vegetables, where medical and agricultural researchers from almost 40 countries are exchanging information at the Omni Hotel in Houston.
“This probably represents the first time in the history of mankind where the underweight population is shrinking, while the obese population is increasing,” he said.
The World Vegetable Center is addressing a number of economic, cultural and health issues in underdeveloped countries by promoting fruit and vegetable production.
Globally, government programs subsidize food stocks or agricultural production of starches, some meat products but not much fruit and vegetable production. Supplements help, including vitamin-enhanced corn for cornmeal or other food supplements, Lumpkin said. In addition to tasting better than supplements, fruits and vegetables are the most efficient dietary method of providing micro-nutrients such as iron, iodine and vitamin A.
“No matter how poor you are, everyone wants a tomato now and then,” he said.
In addition to improving nutrition, the center promotes fruit and vegetable production in developing countries. Producers can generate more money per acre by producing vegetables, particularly varieties indigenous to their country. Vegetable production generates more jobs and supports a higher income level for the local community.
“Our vision for this world gathering is to bridge the gap between medical researchers and agriculture scientists,” said Dr. Bhimu Patil, conference chair and director of the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M University, which is hosting the gathering. “This will help to ward off the obesity syndrome and related problems such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. That way, people can live healthier lives.”
Patil noted that through the Texas A&M center, several researchers are collaborating to find improvements in fruits, nuts and vegetable crops by understanding what is needed for human health.
For example, Dr. Leo Lombardini, who studies pecan production for the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, noted the connection between growing the nut and educating consumers about the health aspects.
“Pecans are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, fiber and protein,” Lombardini said. “They are rich in fat, which makes some people think they need to avoid them. But they have the same fats as olive oil. We suggest people put them in healthy foods such as salads.”
In addition to studying the phytochemicals in fruits, nuts and vegetables, researchers also are looking at how growers produce the crops to achieve the highest levels of these components.
One major crop input – water – has been the subject of many studies mainly because it is becoming so limited in farm areas or in higher demand by urban centers, according to Dr. Daniel Leskovar, Experiment Station horticulturist in Uvalde.
“So we have looked at what is the impact of limited water on the quality of crops,” Leskovar said. “And we are finding that the amount of antioxidants in crops like watermelon and spinach doesn’t decrease with less water.”
Some studies have reduced water applications by one-fourth, which caused slightly less yields but didn’t harm phytochemical levels, he said.
“I believe that in the near future, consumers will begin to demand these compounds in their fruits and vegetables, and what we have learned will help farmers quickly adapt to producing these crops high in antioxidants,” Leskovar added.
The international conference continues through Saturday. More information is available at http://FAVhealth2007.tamu.edu .