Sweet corn to protect vision?

Posted by Isobel Drake on 24th October 2008

Queensland scientists are developing a type of corn that could slow the progression of age-related blindness.Queensland Minister for Primary Industries and Fisheries, Tim Mulherin, said a DPI&F team is increasing the antioxidants in sweet corn that can stem age-related vision degeneration. “Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in Australia, it is responsible for 48% of severe vision loss,” he reported. “There are an estimated 800,000 sufferers and this number is expected to grow rapidly with our aging population

“The cost to Australia over the next 20 years is estimated at $59 billion,” the Minister added. “Unfortunately there is no cure, but DPI&F scientists are breeding super- yellow sweet corn that may help to slow this debilitating condition.”

“Zeaxanthin is the yellow-gold pigment that occurs naturally in sweet corn, Minister Mulherin said. “Scientific evidence shows that eating foods that contain more of this antioxidant could allow eyes to be better protected against age-related eye disease.”

Zeaxanthin is not found in many foods, with sweet corn one of the best known sources.

“Our scientists are developing breeding lines that have four to five times more zeaxanthin than normal sweet corn,” he advised. “By increasing the level of zeaxanthin, the sweet corn has a rich, golden colour. Consumer studies indicate people don’t mind the darker colour, and it actually makes it easier to distinguish from regular sweet corn.”

The Minister said the super-yellow sweet corn project was another example of food and fibre science having real life benefits for the community. “We are leading the world with this research,” he claimed. “In fact we do not know of any other projects to grow zeaxanthin-enriched corn. There is interest from the United States and other countries where macular degeneration is a problem.”

“The export potential is enormous because there are an estimated 25 to 30 million sufferers world-wide,” Mr Mulherin noted.

DPI&F project leader Dr Tim O’Hare said the new corn would be on the market in a few years time.

“The super-yellow sweet corn we are developing should be on the market by 2011. We believe it will be more tender than current varieties and may even have a slightly better flavour,” he said. “U.S. research into the health benefits of zeaxanthin has focused on people consuming two milligrams a day. Just eating one very small cob of our Queensland sweet corn will provide that amount of zeaxanthin.”

“It would be great if sufferers of macular degeneration could get their zeaxanthin naturally, rather than in a tablet form,” Dr O’Hare concluded.

The Minister congratulated Dr Tim O’Hare and his team on their progress with the super-yellow sweet corn project.

“This team is also researching other ‘functional foods’ with specific health benefits, including radish sprouts and high-lycopene tomatoes, which may help in reducing the incidence of certain cancers,” he said.