OSU Nutritionists Initiate One Sweet Study

Adam Huffer
Communication Services
Oklahoma State University

(405) 744-6260


Dr. Brenda Smith, (standing) an assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, appears with graduate student Ashley Ethriedge in the cell culture laboratory. Smith is conducting experiments involving the effects of antioxidant compounds contained in chocolate on bone loss. Expectedly the preliminary stage of an in depth study, the initial funding was provided by the OSU Foundation Women’s Giving Circle.

A group of researchers in OSU’s College of Human Environmental Sciences have initiated a project that may remove the shame associated with one of America’s favorite guilty pleasures. The tens of millions of people tuning in to reality television shows nightly remain left to their own devices, but for chocolate eaters, validation has been brought into the scope of scientific discovery.

Dr. Brenda Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, is studying the effects on bones of polyphenols contained in chocolate. A diverse group of chemical compounds with antioxidant properties, polyphenols are found primarily in fruits and vegetables. Scientists believe that in addition to complementing cardiovascular health, as demonstrated in noted studies of consumption of polyphenols contained in red wine, the compounds aid bone remodeling, the body’s naturally occurring mechanism of wearing away and rebuilding bones.

“Bone remodeling is much like remodeling a house, when part of the old is torn down to make way for the new,” Smith said. “Our bones do exactly that as new and better cells constantly replace older cells.”

“Without constant remodeling, our bones would become very rigid structures and become even more susceptible to fractures,” she said.

Polyphenols have been shown to affect particularly resorption, or bone loss.

“When we are young, osteoblasts, the formation cells, lay down more bone and more is formed than lost to osteoplasts, the resorption cells,” Smith said. “In early adult life, osteoplasts and resorption tend to catch up, and gradually, as we grow old, we start losing bone.”

“We believe antioxidants inhibit bone resorption and are looking at how we can slow the process,” Smith said.

Smith is part of a group of researchers spearheaded by Professors Bahram Arjmandi and Barbara Stoecker. The nutritional scientists are working on bone loss and afflictions associated with it such as osteoporosis, an ever-growing health risk as Americans are living longer. Their focus has attracted interest and funding from entities such as NASA EPSCoR, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and the California Prune Board.

The group’s studies have involved polyphenol-rich foods such as dried plums and soy products. The cocoa bean is also an extremely high source, giving chocolate a polyphenol composition of about 10 percent of its weight. With funding from the OSU Foundation Women’s Giving Circle, Smith has begun to apply polyphenols isolated from chocolate to bone cell cultures.

“Part of the concern with chocolate is preliminarily it has shown positive effects, but they don’t seem to continue very long, in fact, only a matter of hours,” Smith said. “We want to look at the isolated compounds and see if there are potential or real benefits and, if so, are there ways that it may be packaged differently.”

“Or, are there ways to make chocolate even more rich in polyphenols to stay in the system longer.”

Much like the dried plum and soy studies began, Smith’s current cell culture evaluation of polyphenols in chocolate is the start of a much more in depth project. While it holds promise, any breakthroughs will follow years of research including animal and, eventually, clinical studies.

“We have to be careful as nutritionists because whenever something comes out about a food product, unlike a promising new drug, people can go right out and buy it and immediately try it,” Smith said. “If people start trying to eat chocolate every two hours throughout the day, we could create an even more dangerous situation with obesity problems and people not living long enough to worry about bone loss.”

And although chocolate has been added to foods the Department of Nutritional Sciences is studying in relation to bone loss prevention, the benefits it may hold are no substitute for living and eating sensibly, cautions Smith, who also specializes in exercise science.

“There are many components to the lifestyle approach necessary to preventing bone loss as one ages, including weight-bearing exercise, but the immobile and aged ö and the American population in general ö don’t get enough exercise. . . period,” Smith said. “As our population shifts and we’re living longer, projections indicate if we don’t come up with some things to help people, be it nutritional interventions or drug interventions, then we are going to have a big problem on our hands.”

“We need to do weight-bearing exercise as a component, but if we can incorporate into regular diets some of these compounds while avoiding negative side effects on other systems of the body, and coincidentally the side effects of drugs, all the better.”

For information about this page, send e-mail to Adam Huffer.

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