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Program ID: Innovation Anthology #867
Program Date: 05/11/2017
Program Category: Agriculture, Alberta, Health and Medicine, Women in Science

Dr Rhonda Bell: Study Quantifies Health Benefits of Pulses

PROGRAM 867        INTERVIEW WITH DR RHONDA BELL

May 11, 2017

MP3:    12.2 MB
TIME:  13:20  MINUTES

Intro:  Dr. Rhonda Bell is a Professor of Human Nutrition in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Alberta.  Her recent study on the health effects of eating pulses has produced encouraging results, especially for people with pre-hypertensive and pre-diabetic conditions.  The study was funded in part by Alberta Innovates and the Alberta Pulse Growers Association.

DR RHONDA BELL

CC:  RHONDA, YOU'RE DOING SOME WORK WITH PULSES.  WHAT ARE PULSES?

RB:  Well, it’s interesting.  Pulses are the dried seeds from members of the legume family, it includes dried beans, primarily, and dried peas and lentils as well, and chickpeas.

CC:  AND WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF THOSE PULSES?

RB:  Well the health benefits are really numerous.  They are a really interesting crop and a really interesting ingredient to use in food.

So according to Canada's Food Guide, they fall into the Meat and Alternatives group.  So they contain some of the same nutrients that meat would contain such as iron and protein.

On the other hand, in other country's food guides they sometimes fall into the Plants or into the Vegetables group because they also contain a lot of fibre and a lot of the nutrients that are contained in vegetables.

So they are really an allover amazing food to include in our diets.

CC:  AND DO THEY HAVE ANY IMPACT ON THINGS LIKE DIABETES OR HEART HEALTH?

RB:  So those are the two, the two that you just mentioned, are the two clearest places that pulses have a positive impact, in particular.  So they are very well characterized to help reduce blood sugar levels both in people who don't have diabetes as well as people who do have diabetes.

And so, in both cases, the work that has been done at looking at how pulses prevent the development of diabetes is among the strongest that we have from observational studies.

But then there's a whole series of very well done controlled clinical trials looking at how well regular consumption of pulses helps to reduce blood glucose concentrations in people with diabetes as well.

When it comes to heart health, again there's quite a substantial body of evidence that supports the idea that regular consumption of pulses helps to reduce primarily total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.

CC:  NOW MY UNDERSTANDING IS THAT YOU ARE DOING SOME RESEARCH WITH PULSES.  WHAT YOU'RE TRYING TO DO IS TAKE A GOOD THING AND MAKE IT EVEN BETTER.  IS THAT CORRECT?

RB:  Well making it even better means that what we've been doing is looking to see how it is that pulses have health effects particularly around heart health risk and reducing heart health. 

So we've been primarily focusing on the cholesterol story, making it into tasty and convenient foods that people would regularly eat and hopefully get these health effects that we've just been talking about--reduction of lipids and also reduction of glucose.

CC:  SO WHAT IS YOUR RESEARCH PROJECT?

RB:  Well it's a really cool research project and it involves a number of investigators; some from Food Science, some from Nutritional Science, biochemistry, and then also a group who are interested in metabolomics.

So our Food Science colleagues were the ones who made the foods that we used in our trial.  So they came up with a series of soups and stews that had identical background foods.  And then into those identical backgrounds of soups and stews, we added either beans or dried peas or we used rice as our control food.

CC:  WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT OF THAT?

RB:  Well the really important part of that is that one: we wanted to make sure that the beans and peas were being delivered in the way that people eat them.  So it’s very practical and feasible for people to do.

So we had people eating these foods five days a week for up to six weeks.

So the second part: it’s really important to have those consistent background foods because when people enter into a feeding trial like the one we've just done very often if they are getting foods from people involved with nutrition, their diets might improve anyways, because now they are getting healthy items for consumption, for lunch or dinner.

So because of that, we want to make sure that whatever effects we see are those that are due to either the beans or the peas and then comparing them to a control food is again really important.

So those were sort of the two innovations for our trial.

The other interesting thing was, the people who were involved in our trial, they had just mild hypercholesterolemia.  So their lipids were elevated just to a point just below where they would be identified for drug therapy.

So we think this is a very important group of patients or people because they're lipids aren't so high that they would immediately get a drug therapy from their physician.  So they are probably in a position where if they got their blood tested, their doctor might say, "you know, you're lipids are a little bit up.  Before we put you on drugs, why don't we try to be more active and to eat well and to see whether or not we can bring it down."

So we think this again is a very important group of people because they are not already targeted for drug therapy.

So those were all some of the kind of innovations for our study.

CC:  SO HAVE YOU HAD ANY RESULTS YET?

RB:  Yes, we have had some exciting results, as a matter of fact.  So it was a very long study and 180 people ultimately were involved.

Another interesting, cool thing about our project was it involved not only a group here at the University of Alberta but also a group at the University of Manitoba.  So we had two sites running the exact same protocols with the same foods being cooked and the same types of patients being recruited.

So it turns out that our beans in particular have a lipid lowering effect.  They also have a glucose lowering effect.  So even though our patients didn't have diabetes, their glucose got just a little bit better.

So it's not hypoglycemic or anything like that.  But it’s an indication that their health and their glycemic responses also improved.

Interestingly, the peas had a positive effect on lowering people's blood pressure.  Again, just a little bit, these people were not hypertensive before they came into the study.  But just to the point again where you would say that they have an improvement in overall health.

So those were our two most exciting findings on the clinical side of things.

CC:  SO THAT'S REALLY INTERESTING.  THE BEANS, DOES IT MATTER WHAT KIND OF BEANS?  DO THEY HAVE TO BE NAVY BEANS OR RED BEANS, THAT KIND OF THING?

RB:  So we used a combination of four different beans--navy beans, pinto beans, black beans, and we used two different types of peas.  So again it suggests there might be some interesting slight differences in the ways that pulses work.  Probably based in the types of fibre that is contained, maybe based on the protein that's contained in those beans and peas; but what it says together, is that mixture, both beans and peas, have the potential to lower a number of different risk factors for cardiovascular disease. 

So both lipids and blood pressure and keeps the glucoses in check as well.

CC:  HOW DID YOU MEASURE AND KEEP THIS CONTROLLED?  BECAUSE AS A COOK MYSELF, I KNOW IT’S DIFFERENT EVERY TIME I COOK SOMETHING?

RB:  Yeah, very good question.  So upstairs in Li Ka-shing, we actually have the human nutrition research unit.  And in that we have a test kitchen.  So as I mentioned, the food scientists on the team formulated the soups and stews that we were using and they had to weigh out all the ingredients.

Then we had to cook the beans and peas to a very specific protocol.  So always for exactly the same time, exactly the same amount of water, same amount of salt, etc, etc.

Then what we did was, we created the base for each of the different, we had five different soups and stews.  And then we would add a portion of the beans or peas to each of the different portions of the soups.

So it was a little bit more than three quarters of a cup in each serving.  But it works out to Canada Food Guide's recommendations.  

CC:  HOW DID YOU ACTUALLY SERVE THIS UP?  DID PEOPLE HAVE TO COME HERE FOR THEIR MEAL OR DID THEY GET A LITTLE PACKAGE AND THEY COOKED IT UP AT HOME?

RB:  Yeah, so what we did was we cooked the whole thing and then they got frozen packages, frozen individual servings of their soups.  And so then that made it more convenient for them.

So participants came in for a baseline visit and then we'd give them three weeks' worth of soups.  Then they came back for a three-week visit and then we gave them three more weeks' worth of soups.

And we had terrific, absolutely terrific adherence to our protocol.  And I think, in all honesty, people got a little bit tired of having the same five soups every day, five days a week for six weeks.   

But certainly it’s totally possible to change them up and I think that's going to be one of the most exciting things.  Because hopefully from work like this, there's lots of potential, but one thing is the creation of easy and convenient ways to serve soups and stews containing beans and peas to make it easier for people to eat.

CC:  WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

RB:  Well there are a whole lot of different options.  And we have several irons in the fire.

So one is, we've always planned to do some more detailed biochemical work.  It's called, well some of it is actual biochemistry.  And then some of it is more on the metabolomic profiling.  To see how it is that we have the metabolomic profile of the ingredient; so of the beans and peas themselves then we have the profiles of the soups and stews that people ate.

Then we have people's blood samples and we've got people's urine samples.  So that we can track hopefully, track markers all the way through like, the beans all the way to cooking, all the way to what goes into the bloodstream and gets excreted in the urine.

So we've just finished, like this last couple of weeks, our first pass at some of the metabolomic work.  But that's very powerful tool.  So we're interested in that.

There are a lot of other things.  Of course we have a lot of samples, so we have a lot of interest in exploring those samples.  Maybe there are some other health effects that we may find; other nutrients that changed and may be contributing to our work.  There's a lot of interest in the microbiome.  And we didn't collect fecal samples from our participants.  But I can tell you there's a colleague of mine, Dr. Jens Walters, in particular, who is very interested in this work and we may collaborate with him in the future, because he's a microbiome expert.  So we may go down that path.

And then I was talking with a fellow in cardiology actually.  His name is Dr Ross Tsuyuki.  He works a lot with pharmacists.  And one of the trials that we just discussed briefly is there a way in a grocery store setting to have pharmacists, who now in Alberta, they have a lot of potential for interfacing with the public around drug therapies and so forth.  And dieticians very often work in grocery stores as well.  And so we've been talking as to whether it would make sense to have a trial where we had pharmacists and dieticians working together so we could combine the power of drugs with the power of foods and food products to see how to best optimize people's health in that setting.  So, we'll see where we go.  I'm not exactly sure what will get funded first.

CC:  NOW YOU MENTIONED FUNDING.  WHAT ROLE DID ALBERTA INNOVATES PLAY IN THIS? 

RB:  We were so fortunate to have what was called a Quality Food for Health Grant from Alberta Innovates.  They brought together a group of funders that included a number of people, Alberta Innovates being one of them, and also the Alberta Pulse Growers.  And they were just so absolutely generous.

So they allowed us not only to run our clinical trial, but at one point we really needed to expand our clinical trial and they also helped to make sure that got done.

Then of course they've been the ones primarily funded all the analysis.  So I mean we would not have done this work had it not been for them.  It's an absolutely outstanding program, the Quality Food for Health one.

CC:  WELL THIS IS REALLY INTERESTING AND I'M WAITING FOR THAT RECIPE BOOK TO COME OUT. 

RB:  Well as soon as it’s available I can let you know.  But in the meantime, I'd take a look at the Alberta Pulse Growers website because they have an outstanding website with lots and lots of wonderful recipes.

CC:  THANK YOU VERY MUCH RHONDA.

RB:  It's a pleasure.  Thank you.  

Dr. Rhonda Bell is a Professor in Human Nutrition at the University of Alberta.

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