Cardiovascular disease is a collective term for conditions affecting blood vessels and the heart, usually associated with atherosclerosis, where fatty deposits build up in arteries, causing hardening and blockages. This can lead to heart disease, strokes and arterial diseases, making cardiovascular disease one of the biggest killers in the UK.

The precise causes aren’t clear, but there are well-established risk factors that increase the chances of developing atherosclerosis and heart disease. A number of these are diet-related, including obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol.

A healthier diet, low in saturated fat, sugar and salt and containing plenty of fibre and fruit and vegetables is recommended to help ensure good cardiovascular health.

We want to work out how the physical and chemical structure of foods affects its digestibility, and if manipulating this can lead to changes in satiety, as a way to help combat obesity and tackling related problems such as cardiovascular disease.

Within the Quadram Institute, we are focusing on understanding exactly why diets rich in fruit and vegetables reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. We want to know how food modulates the body’s metabolic processes to benefit health.

A large body of research has already given indications that particular compounds in foods have bioactive effects on processes in the body, many of which are linked to health. Food bioactives represent a large class of compounds, and our current focus is on sulphur-containing metabolites mainly derived from Brassica plants, and on polyphenols, found in often colourful fruits and vegetables. Our polyphenol research is centred around anthocyanins, brightly coloured compounds found in berries, for example raspberries and blueberries and vegetables such as red/purple cabbage and red/purple potatoes.

Within the Quadram Institute our aim is to go beyond simplified experiments on isolated cells or in model systems, and use dietary intervention studies with humans, both patients and healthy volunteers, to test specific hypotheses. From this we can work out the mechanisms by which they work by unravelling how they are absorbed into the body, how they interact with our cells, how they influence cellular signalling mechanisms and how this influences our metabolism and how this links to conditions such as atherosclerosis. This provides us with the very best evidence linking dietary components to metabolic health and cardiovascular disease.

Our approach is possible because of the concentration of expertise and facilities in the Quadram Institute and on the Norwich Research Park. The QI Clinical Research Facility provides state-of-the-art facilities for dietary intervention studies and the collection of samples ready for analysis by our researchers, in collaboration with clinicians where appropriate, all facilitated by the neighbouring NRP Biorepository.

Working with our Norwich Research Park partners, the John Innes Centre, to harness the latest plant genomic technologies, we are developing plants and foods with defined changes to certain bioactives for use in randomised, controlled dietary intervention trials to explore the role of each bioactive within the diet. This positions us to be able to translate our understanding of the influence of dietary bioactives into new varieties of fruits and vegetables with verified benefits for cardiovascular health, and, working with commercial partners, bring these to market, benefiting population health and boosting the bioeconomy.

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