Lychee: Good for the body, good for the farm

Jun 14, 2010

The sub-tropical fruit lychee could be a new crop for farmers along California's coast, according to Mark Gaskell, the UC Cooperative Extension advisor to small-scale farmers in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

A ping-pong-ball-sized tree fruit with white, jelly-like flesh, the red-skinned lychee is popular among Asian consumers. They appear to be adapted to roughly the same conditions as avocados, Gaskell said. Since the fruit is well accepted in areas where it is available, the potential market acceptability of lychees is high. And, demand for fresh lychees already exists in Asian markets that carry whole, frozen, unshelled lychees.

Nutritionists are also looking closely at the fruit, which is a rich source of dietary flavanols, according to UC Davis research nutritionist Robert Hockman.

Flavanols – found in strawberries, cocoa, red wine, green tea and lychees - provide improvements in the smooth lining of the vascular system, reduce blood pressure, reduce blood stickiness and possibly provide cognitive improvements, Hockman reports in a video recorded for UC’s website Feeling Fine Online.

However, studies have determined that, just because people eat flavanol-rich foods, it doesn’t mean the beneficial compounds get into the blood stream. Most flavanols, he said, are long-chain polyphenols, which are not well absorbed by the body.

In his research, Hockman is using a lychee fruit extract that has been processed to have smaller – more bioactive – molecules. The product was fed to rats and found to pass through the digestive tract and into the blood stream.

“Now we are moving on to human studies,” Hockman said.

He is specifically studying the lychee extract and vascular health in post-menopausal women.

“Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer in California and the No. 1 killer in the U.S.,” Hockman said. “It represents enormous health care costs. California agriculture products may help reduce the risk (of cardiovascular disease), saving billions of dollars.”

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By Jeannette E. Warnert
Author - Communications Specialist