U of Illinois professor tout health benefits of Hispanic foods and beverages

December 13, 2006

URBANA -- Your trip to that Mexican restaurant on Friday may be the smartest thing you did for yourself nutritionally all week.

Just released, Chemistry and Flavor of Hispanic Foods examines the bioactivity of such foods as Mexican beans and oregano, ethnic teas, Hispanic dairy products, and the ancient protein-rich cereal grain amaranth, said University of Illinois assistant professor of food science and nutrition Elvira de Mejia, who co-edited the book.

"Many Hispanic foods have nutraceutical properties--they provide health benefits that go beyond their simple nutritional value--and the book also explores ways to make these foods more appealing to the American palate. There's even a chapter on the chemical properties and flavor enhancement of tequila and Margaritas," she said.

De Mejia is most interested in the bioactive properties of mate tea. Used by Hispanics for centuries to treat diseases, the scientist said this ethnic tea contains polyphenols that enhance the immune system, flavonoids that protect against cancer, and properties that may lower blood pressure, boost energy, and fight depression and headaches.

"Mate tea has the highest antioxidant capacity of the ethnic teas we have studied in my lab. There is evidence that three to four cups of this tea per day could have a protective effect against chronic diseases," she said.

The scientist said that mate tea aids in reducing inflammation, the starting point of many chronic health problems that may accompany and contribute to aging.

According to de Mejia, the market for nutraceutical beverages is $60 billion and growing. "The new trend for companies in the beverage industry is to mix tea with soft drinks for a unique flavor and added health benefits. You can taste the tea in the new product. It's bubbly, it's different, but people seem to like it," she said.

Caleb Heck, a graduate student in de Mejia's lab, plans to prepare a concentrate of the most bioactive components of mate tea so it can be incorporated into soft drinks and juices, she said.

Heck is not only studying the benefits, flavoring, and safety of mate tea, he is trying to find the best processing techniques to preserve its quality and aroma. "We need to do further research to learn the best conditions for roasting the mate and making it appealing to American consumers. We may want to emphasize certain attributes and aromas at the expense of others," de Mejia said.
Chemistry and Flavor of Hispanic Foods is available from Oxford University Press (1-800-485-9714) for $130. If that doesn't fit your holiday shopping budget or you're just too worn out from traipsing around the mall to do any heavy reading, stop at the health and nutrition store, buy a box of mate tea, and fix yourself a pick-me-up.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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