Even though Hidde van Steenwijk studied pharmacology in Groningen, he decided to substitute the world of “pills and powders” for the “healthy pharmacy” instead. The Maastricht University PhD candidate is currently doing research at the Food Claims Centre at the Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo on the effects of fruit and vegetables on our health. His innovative approach to this study helps him cultivate new knowledge on the potential applications of healthy nutrition.

“This has been the topic of so much research in the past that was mainly based on studies that looked at the intake of fruit and vegetables and cell studies. These results can only help predict the value of different substances in fruit and vegetables. This was why I started new research within the context of the top sector project “The Value(s) of Fruit and Vegetables” that was based on existing studies. Under the supervision of Aalt Bast and Alie de Boer of the Food Claims Centre, during the four-year period of the study I’m going to develop an innovative challenge model to investigate the health effects of fruit and vegetables from a pharmaceutical standpoint.”

Tell us more. What is an innovative challenge model?

“The challenge model is designed to make it possible to look at health as a complete picture instead of just one small effect of one substance. We study whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the intake of certain nutrients and health effects. Once we have a validated model, it can be applied to NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen, food supplements and other types of fruit and vegetables.”

How is your research structured?

“During the first phase I did literature research to select ingredients that have the potential for an effect on inflammatory processes in practice. These can be interesting for further research and this is why anti-inflammatory properties were one of the selection criteria. A variety of diseases of affluence, such as diabetes type II, involve chronic inflammation. Sulforaphane in particular, commonly found in broccoli, and lycopene in tomatoes proved to be suitable substances. This is the initial focus of our research. In a later phase, we will have healthy subjects participate in certain challenges such as jogging, for example, or eating a meal high in fat. This exposes the test subjects to a form of stress, which produces an inflammatory reaction to specific biomarkers. The sooner people recover from these sources of stress, the healthier they are likely to be. During an earlier stage, we do this using blood in which we induce an inflammation. We also have to take into account, for example, the subjects’ genetic make-up and the way the broccoli is prepared. Did you know that boiling broccoli produces much less sulforaphane than when you blanch it?”

Want to enjoy broccoli to the fullest?

·       Steam it briefly, so it’s firm to the bite (3 minutes)
·       Blanch it at 700oC (10 minutes)
·       Or just eat it raw
Make sure to chew it well! If it tastes bitter, this is the sulforaphane!

A consortium of companies and knowledge institutes are behind your research. How can your work help them?

“These days, everyone knows that your lifestyle has an impact on your health, such as getting more exercise, not smoking, drinking less alcohol and eating more fruit and vegetables. We’re definitely on the right track with the first three things, but eating more fruit and vegetables appears to be a bigger challenge.  Only 16% of the population eats 200 grams of vegetables a day, so there’s still a lot of progress to be made in that regard. If you can make it clear why this is so important, you will also have an important trump card in your hands to convince people to actually do so. This is interesting for seed improvement companies and growers. We created a summary of the interesting substances in crops using the results from our literature study. We are also currently conducting a literature study on the effects of lycopene on inflammation.”


You've entered a whole new world as a pharmacist.

“And a very interesting world it is! There are many similarities between this field and the pharmaceutical sector because it is becoming increasingly clear that chemical compounds from nature can have a beneficial effect. After all, so many medicines are also derived from interesting substances from animals, plants and herbs. As far as we now know, fruit and vegetables cannot be used to treat diseases of affluence, but you might be able to avoid contracting them as a result. Suppose that by making the right choices now, you can put off having to take medication for another ten years, that’s an amazing benefit, wouldn’t you say? Once we have completed the literature studies, I will be spending more time at the lab at the Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo. Both the university campus and this one are an inspiring and international environment to work in. Pharmacology was a completely Dutch program, but the program I’m teaching pharmacology and toxicology classes in as a PhD candidate includes people from all over the world. I really love this aspect of it.”
For more information about the project and the partners see: www.waardenvangroentenenfruit.nl



Bejo Zaden B.V. - Best Fresh – Brightlabs - Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo – Delphy B.V. - Groen Agro Control – HAS Hogeschool - InnovationQuarter - Koppert Biological Systems - Koppert Cress – Maastricht University – Nunhems Netherlands B.V. - Omnigen B.V. - Scelta Mushrooms – Stichting Avans - Stichting Control Food and Flowers – Takii - VanRijssingenGreen

This project receives financial support from the Topsector Horticulture and Starting Materials. Within the Topsector, business parties, knowledge institutions and the government work together on innovations in the field of sustainable production of healthy and safe food, and the development of a healthy, green living environment.