Skip to main content

Plant foods for human health: research challenges

  • John C. Mathers (a1)

Plants provide the major part of human food intake. Whilst advances in agronomic characteristics (improved yield and better pest and disease resistance) continue to be a very high priority, there is increasing opportunity to enhance the nutritional value of plant based diets by improving the nutritional quality of staple foods. We now have proof of principle that genetic engineering can be used to produce plant-derived human vaccines. In relation to plant foods for human health, the research challenges include understanding: (1) why certain foods cause adverse reactions in some individuals but not in others; (2) the mechanisms of action of apparently ‘protective’ foods such as fruits and vegetables. There is also a need to develop much more informative and robust methods for measuring dietary exposure to specific plant foods or food constituents, including both recent exposure, for which a metabolomics approach may be particularly helpful, and long-term exposure.

    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Plant foods for human health: research challenges
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Plant foods for human health: research challenges
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Plant foods for human health: research challenges
      Available formats
Corresponding author
Corresponding author: Professor John Mathers, fax + 44 191 222 8943, email
Hide All
Acamovic, T Brooker, JD (2005) Biochemistry of plant secondary metabolites and their effects in animals Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 64 403412.
Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta Carotene Cancer Prevention Study Group (1994) The effect of vitamin E and beta-carotene on lung cancer incidence and other cancers in male smokers New England Journal of Medicine 330 10291035.
Ames, BN Wakimoto, P (2002) Are vitamin and mineral deficiencies a major cancer risk? Nature Reviews Cancer 2 694704.
Bingham, SA (2002) Biomarkers in nutritional epidemiology Public Health Nutrition 5 821827.
Bingham, SA Gill, C Welch, A, Cassidy, A Runswick, SA Oakes, S et al. (1997) Validation of dietary assessment methods in the UK arm of EPIC using weighed records, and 24-hour urinary nitrogen and potassium and serum vitamin C and carotenoids as biomarkers International Journal of Epidemiology 26, Suppl. 1 S137S151
Brash, DE Havre, PA (2002) New careers for antioxidants Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 99 1396913971.
Clark, HE Allen, PE Meyers, SM, Tuckett, SE Yamamura, Y (1967) Nitrogen balances of adults consuming opaque-2 maize protein American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 20 825833.
Collins, AR Harrington, V Drew, J, Melvin, R (2003) Nutritional modulation of DNA repair in a human intervention study Carcinogenesis 24 511515.
Crow, JF Kermicle, J (2002) Oliver Nelson and quality protein maize Genetics 160 819821.
European Commission (2004) Plants for the Future. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.
Gibbon, BC Larkins, BA (2005) Molecular genetic approaches to developing quality protein maize Trends in Genetics 21 227233.
Gibney, MJ Walsh, M Brennan, L, Roche, HM German, B van Ommen, B (2005) Metabolomics in human nutrition: opportunities and challenges American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 82 497503.
Haq, TA Mason, HS Clements, JD, Arntzen, CJ (1995) Oral immunization with a recombinant bacterial antigen produced in transgenic plants Science 268 714716.
Jaenisch, R Bird, A (2003) Epigenetic regulation of gene expression: how the genome integrates intrinsic and environmental signals Nature Genetics 33 245254.
Jood, S Singh, M (2001) Amino acid composition and biological evaluation of the protein quality of high lysine barley genotypes Plant Foods for Human Nutrition 56 145155.
Koziel, MG Beland, GL Bowman, C Carozzi, NB Crenshaw, R Crossland, L et al. (1993) Field performance of elite transgenic maize plants expressing an insecticidal protein derived from Bacillus thuringiensis Bio-Technology 11 194200.
Lai, CL Ratziu, V Yuen, M-F, Poynard, T (2003) Viral hepatitis B Lancet 362 20892094.
Liu, Y Kulesz-Martin, M (2001) p53 protein at the hub of cellular DNA damage response pathways through sequence-specific and non-sequence-specific DNA binding Carcinogenesis 22 851860.
Martin-Orúe, SM O'Donnell, AG Ariño, J Netherwood, T, Gilbert, HJ Mathers, JC (2002) Degradation of transgenic DNA from genetically modified soya and maize in human intestinal simulations British Journal of Nutrition 87 533542.
Mathers, JC (2003) Nutrients and apoptosis. In Molecular Nutrition, pp. 7389 [Zempleni, J and Daniel, H, editors]. Wallingford, Oxon.: CABI Publishing.
Mathers, JC (2004a) The biological revolution – towards a mechanistic understanding of the impact of diet on cancer risk Mutation Research 551 4349.
Mathers, JC (2004b) Chairman's introduction: what can we expect to learn from genomics? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 63 14.
Mazza, R Soave, M Morlacchini, M, Piva, G Marocco, A (2005) Assessing the transfer of genetically modified DNA from feed to animal tissues Transgenic Research 14 775784.
Mertz, ET Bates, LS Nelson, OE (1964) Mutant maize that changes the protein composition and increases the lysine content of maize endosperm Science 145 279280.
Millward, DJ (1999) The nutritional value of plant-based diets in relation to human amino acid and protein requirements Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 58 249260.
Millward, DJ Jackson, AA (2004) Protein/energy ratios of current diets in developed and developing countries compared with safe protein/energy ratio: implications for recommended protein and amino acid intakes Public Health Nutrition 7 387405.
Milner, JA (2004) Molecular targets for bioactive food components. Journal of Nutrition 134 2492S2498S.
Netherwood, T Martin-Orúe, SM O'Donnell, AG Glocking, S Graham, J, Mathers, JC Gilbert, HJ (2004) Assessing the survival of transgenic plant DNA in the human gastrointestinal tract Nature Biotechnology 22 204209.
Nielsen, KM Townsend, JP (2004) Monitoring and modelling horizontal gene transfer Nature Biotechnology 22 11101114.
Olsen, OA (1974) Ultrastructure and genetics of the barley line hiproly Hereditas 77 287302.
Oommen, AM Griffin, JB Sarath, G Zempleni, J (2005) Roles for nutrients in epigenetic events. Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry 16 7477.
Padgette, SR Kolacz, KH Delannay, X Re, DB Lavallee, BJ, Tinius, CN et al. (1995) Development, identification, and characterization of a glyphosate-tolerant soybean line Crop Science 35 14511461.
Rhodes, AP Mathers, JC (1974) Varietal differences in amino acid composition of barley grain during development and under varying nitrogen supply. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 25 963972.
Ross, AB Aman, P Kamal-Eldin, A (2004) Identification of cereal alkylresorcinol metabolites in human urine – potential biomarkers of wholegrain wheat and rye intake. Journal of Chromatography 809B 125130.
Rossi, F Morlacchini, M Fusconi, G, Pietri, A Mazza, R, Piva, G (2005) Effect of Bt corn on broiler growth performance and fate of feed-derived DNA in the digestive tract Poultry Science 84 10221030.
Steele, VE (2003) Current mechanistic approaches to chemoprevention of cancer. Journal of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 36 7881.
Streatfield, SJ Jilka, JM Hood, EE, Turner, DD Bailey, MR, Mayor, JM et al. (2001) Plant-based vaccines: unique advantages Vaccine 19 27422748.
Tacket, CO Pasetti, MF Edelman, R Howard, JA Streatfield, S (2004) Immunogenicity of recombinant LT-B delivered orally to humans in transgenic corn Vaccine 22 43854389.
Thanavala, Y Mahoney, M Pal, S, Scott, A Richter, L, Natarajan, N Goodwin, P, Arntzen, CJ Mason, HS (2005) Immunogenicity in humans of an edible vaccine for hepatitis B Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 102 33783382.
Trichopoulou, A Orfanos, P Norat, T, Bueno-de-Mesquita, B Ocke, MC Peeters, PH et al. (2005) Modified Mediterranean diet and survival: EPIC-elderly prospective cohort study British Medical Journal 330 991997.
Wei, Q Shen, H Wang, LE Duphorne, CM, Pillow, PC Guo, Z Qiao, Y, Spitz, MR (2003) Association between low dietary folate intake and suboptimal cellular DNA repair capacity Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention 12 963969.
Welch, RM Graham, RD (2004) Breeding for micronutrients in staple food crops from a human nutrition perspective. Journal of Experimental Botany 55 353364.
World Health Organization (1996) Fighting Disease, Fostering Development. Geneva: WHO.
World Health Organization/Food and Agriculture Organization (2003) Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases. WHO Technical Report Series no. 916. Geneva: WHO.
Ye, X Al-Babili, S Klöti, A Zhang, J Lucca, P, Beyer, P Potrykus, I (2000) Engineering provitamin A (β-carotene) biosynthetic pathway into (carotenoids-free) rice endosperm Science 287 303305.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Proceedings of the Nutrition Society
  • ISSN: 0029-6651
  • EISSN: 1475-2719
  • URL: /core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *