Office of Research

Functional Foods and Soy

Functional Foods

The University of Illinois has been a leader in research on the health benefits of soy and the discovery of many other functional foods.  The National Soybean Research Laboratory (NSRL) at the U of I has worked closely with Illinois soybean growers and the American Soybean Association on the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health (WISHH) program to provide soy protein to third-world countries.

Food scientists at the U of I have made startling discoveries connecting functional foods with dramatic health benefits. Elvira de Mejia’s research has identified an "anti-obesity" soy peptide that causes a feeling of fullness by slowing the rate that the stomach empties, and that the soy peptide lunasin binds to a specific receptor in highly metastatic colon cancer cells, preventing them from attaching to the liver.  In other research on which she collaborated, it was shown that mate tea drinkers experienced a significant increase in the activity of an enzyme that promotes HDL (good) cholesterol while lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol.

John Erdman and Elizabeth Jeffery have studied the cancer-fighting agents found in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables. Jeffery has discovered sulfur compounds in broccoli that enhance certain enzymes in the human body, which then act to degrade carcinogens.  Erdman learned how the phytochemicals in tomatoes affect the progression of prostate cancer, and that when tomatoes and broccoli are eaten together, there is an additive effect. 

William Helferich has investigated how dietary genistein influenced the growth of estrogen-dependent tumors in animals receiving either exogenous estrogen or tamoxifen.  The results indicate that dietary genistein can negate the effect of the very successful breast cancer anti-estrogen therapy, tamoxifen.  Helferich and his colleagues further demonstrated that dietary genistein also negates the effect of the aromatase inhibitor, letrozole. This is a very important observation, because most postmenopausal breast cancer patients with estrogen-responsive cancer are administered aromatase inhibitors.