Originally published February 6, 2015
By Laura L. Acosta
UTEP News Service
Research shows that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables provides the body with essential vitamins and minerals, and can reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.
But whether or not a person actually gets the right amounts of fruits and vegetables recommended for a healthy diet can be difficult to determine without a blood test.
Instead of using needles, researchers at the Paso del Norte Institute for Healthy Living are using a noninvasive device that measures carotenoids in the skin to assess fruit and vegetable consumption across the Paso del Norte region.
Also known as the IHL, the Institute for Healthy Living is an initiative by the Paso del Norte Health Foundation (PdNHF) that involves four partner institutions, including The University of Texas at El Paso, to promote healthy eating and active living in the region.
“Prior to the development of these methods, scientists had to rely on either self-reports of fruit and vegetable intake or blood levels of carotenoids, which of course require a blood sample and an expensive laboratory test,” said Leah Whigham, Ph.D., IHL executive director. “The fact that we can now assess carotenoids noninvasively and for a much lower cost gives us the ability to more accurately measure fruit and vegetable intake in people living in the Paso del Norte region.”
The device uses a technique called reflectance spectroscopy, which involves shining a light on the skin of the hand to measure carotenoids in the skin. Carotenoids are compounds found in fruits and vegetables, such as beta carotene in carrots. Tracking changes in these compounds in the body is considered the best way to measure changes in fruit and vegetable intake.
“It’s kind of a veggie meter,” said Werner Gellermann, Ph.D., who discussed the device during his seminar titled, “Optical Detection of Carotenoids in Living Human Tissue,” at UTEP on Feb. 2. Gellermann, a research professor of physics at the University of Utah, developed the technology eight years ago with scientists at the Yale School of Public Health.
Volunteers place their finger in the device, which is similar to the size and shape of an electric pencil sharpener, for 20 seconds while the light interacts with carotenoids in the skin. Volunteers receive a score depending on their fruit and vegetable intake. The amount of carotenoids represents their fruit and vegetable intake.
“Before I took the test I was a little nervous and I kept thinking, ‘Did I eat my vegetables? What have I eaten lately?’” said UTEP Wellness Program Manager Eileen Aguilar with a laugh. “But I think that what the institute is doing is really exciting because it can help us plan some effective programs for our students on campus and in the community.”
Gellermann began developing the technology after a colleague at the University of Utah School of Medicine explained to him the importance of carotenoids in the human body.
“There are over 5,000 manuscripts in the scientific literature saying that it’s important to have a well-balanced intake of fruits and vegetables to protect against all kinds of degenerative diseases,” Gellermann said.
Studies suggest that a diet high in carotenoid intake can lower the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss and blindness among Americans who are age 65 and older.
According to Gellermann, the IHL is the first in the region to have the technology.
The institute purchased three devices through funding from the PdNHF’s Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) initiative. The PdNHF has committed more than $9 million in funding to the IHL.
Established in 2013, the IHL leverages the resources of its institutional partners – PdNHF; UTEP; The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Public Health El Paso Campus; and The Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center-Paul L. Foster School of Medicine – to develop innovative and sustainable solutions for healthy eating and active living in the Paso del Norte region.
Among the IHL’s goals is to increase fruit and vegetable consumption and improve portion control.
Whigham said the devices will be shared with other researchers in the region who want to use the methodology to assess changes in fruit and vegetable intake.
“This will be important to help us determine if the many programs around the region aiming to increase fruit and vegetable intake are having the intended impact,” Whigham explained. “By knowing this, we will be able to optimize these efforts to increase fruit and vegetable intake.”
Whigham is already familiar with the technology. As a research nutritionist at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in North Dakota, Whigham collaborated with Gellermann and his Yale colleagues in a validation study.
The objective was to compare blood carotenoid concentrations with skin carotenoid assessments using the technology during a controlled feeding intervention.
For Whigham, the device is one example as to how the IHL will track health improvements across the region.
“This is a new approach and the first in the region,” Whigham said. “We hope results will help the IHL staff and partners to identify new strategies to promote a healthier region.”
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