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Amaranth plant venture aims to improve deficient diets | TribLIVE.com
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Amaranth plant venture aims to improve deficient diets

ptramaranth04092814
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Mary Beth Wilson, founder of Innovesca, an Uptown food technology company, examines the seeds from a crop of amaranth planted at M&M Robertson Farm in Clairton County, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. Wilson is hoping to develop a process which converts the leaves of amaranth into a highly nutritious food powder to be used as a supplement in third-world countries.
ptramaranth01092814
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Mary Beth Wilson, founder of Innovesca, an Uptown food technology company examines a crop of amaranth she has planted at M&M Robertson Farm in Clairton County, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. Wilson is hoping to develop a process which converts the leaves of amaranth into a highly nutritious food powder to be used as a supplement in third-world countries.
ptramaranth03092814
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Mary Beth Wilson, founder of Innovesca, an Uptown food technology company, examines the seeds from a crop of amaranth planted at M&M Robertson Farm in Clairton County, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. Wilson is hoping to develop a process which converts the leaves of amaranth into a highly nutritious food powder to be used as a supplement in third-world countries.
ptramaranth05092814
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Alison Etheridge, of Innovesca, an Uptown food technology company collects data from a crop of amaranth planted at M&M Robertson Farm in Clairton County, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. Wilson is hoping to develop a process which converts the leaves of amaranth into a highly nutritious food powder to be used as a supplement in third-world countries.
ptramaranth06092814
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Mary Beth Wilson, founder of Innovesca, an Uptown food technology and Alison Etheridge of Innovesca, trim leaves from crop of amaranth planted at M&M Robertson Farm in Clairton County, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. Wilson is hoping to develop a process which converts the leaves of amaranth into a highly nutritious food powder to be used as a supplement in third-world countries.
ptramaranth07092814
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Mary Beth Wilson, founder of Innovesca, an Uptown food technology cuts a stalk of amaranth she has planted at M&M Robertson Farm in Clairton County, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. Wilson is hoping to develop a process which converts the leaves of amaranth into a highly nutritious food powder to be used as a supplement in third-world countries.
ptramaranth080928141
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Mary Beth Wilson, founder of Innovesca, an Uptown food technology company planted a crop of amaranth at M&M Robertson Farm in Clairton County, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. Wilson is hoping to develop a process which converts the leaves of amaranth into a highly nutritious food powder to be used as a supplement in third-world countries.
ptramaranth09a092814
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Mary Beth Wilson, founder of Innovesca, an Uptown food technology company planted a crop of amaranth at M&M Robertson Farm in Clairton County, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. Wilson is hoping to develop a process which converts the leaves of amaranth into a highly nutritious food powder to be used as a supplement in third-world countries.
ptramaranth02092814
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Mary Beth Wilson, founder of Innovesca, an Uptown food technology company examines a crop of amaranth she has planted at M&M Robertson Farm in Clairton County, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. Wilson is hoping to develop a process which converts the leaves of amaranth into a highly nutritious food powder to be used as a supplement in third-world countries.

On a Clarion County farm north of Pittsburgh grows a small plot of a plant vying for shelf space in the billion-dollar health supplement industry.

Amaranth, known for its gluten-free grain and long life in flower arrangements, harbors a dense, nutritious leaf that some people eat but many find too bitter and throw away.

Innovesca, an Uptown-based start-up, is working to turn the leaves into powder to supplement diets of people in developing nations, and possibly those of weekend warriors in developed nations.

“The leaves are incredibly nutritious but go to waste. It’s viewed as a poor man’s food,” said Innovesca founder Mary Beth Wilson, who received a $25,000 grant from Urban Innovation 21 to develop her business.

She and other supplement producers have the challenge of keeping the nutritional value of plants and other raw foods through processing. For most raw foods, cooking frees up some nutrients as cells break up, but heat destroys others. Freezing, drying and grinding can impact nutritional value.

Wilson has a patent-pending method to preserve most of the amaranth leaf’s nutritional value when making a powder.

“Obliterating the plant is just not the best way,” she said.

Researchers have found evidence that feeding people in developing nations amaranth leaves and other non-traditional leafy greens can improve vitamin deficiencies.

Amaranth leaves contain high concentrations of vitamins lutein and beta-carotene, which support eye health, and calcium and iron, Wilson said.

A 2013 study in the European Journal of Nutrition, conducted in Kenya by researchers at Kenyatta University, examined amaranth leaves that were dried before being use in food. The authors said Kenyan children and pregnant women struggle with vitamin A deficiency and anemia.

Though drying can strip some nutrients from a plant, more than half the beta carotene and other nutrients remained in the leaves, and feeding dried amaranth and cowpea leaves to preschoolers improved their levels of beta carotene and hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the bloodstream, the study found.

Wilson thinks her powdered supplement, which is relatively tasteless, could help with nutrient deficiencies.

The supplement market is crowded with competitors.

Bourne Partners, a Charlotte-based health care investment firm, released a report in 2013 putting the value of the global nutraceutical market at $205 billion by 2015. The market includes fortified foods such as probiotic yogurt, protein powder supplements and raw minerals and oils marketed for their nutritional value.

Some claims have drawn scrutiny.

A Journal of the American Medical Association report found that from 2004 to 2012, half of 465 drugs the Food and Drug Administration recalled for safety issues were supplements. They ranged from those with weight-loss claims to others that offered to improve sexual performance, although researchers said the FDA did not provide information about why the products were recalled.

“Nutraceuticals are kind of a ‘Wild, Wild West,’ ” said Wilson, who studied biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “You don’t have to get a (product) approved, but if you say something and it’s untrue, you could get in trouble.”

To ensure her claims will be true and to tweak her process, Wilson and a partner make weekly visits to the Sligo farm where she is growing about an acre of various species of amaranth. One species is native to Rwanda. Another will eventually seed a large-scale demonstration project with local farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico.

She measures stalks, pulls leaves for testing and checks to see whether the flowers have gone to seed, which she’ll save.

Even if she and other supplement producers can show, chemically, that products are chock-full of vitamins and minerals, there is the question of bioavailability — that is, whether humans can process the nutrients.

University of Wisconsin nutrition professor Sherry Tanumihardjo has studied chemicals such as beta-carotene in animals, to see how they take up and use the vitamin A precursor, and found no detrimental effects.

“Breaking up the plant matrix does help increase the availability of the nutrients,” Tanumihardjo said, but “you can lose nutrient through the drying process. Animal studies or small human studies would be ideal to support the claims.”

Wilson has some petri dish studies showing how cells take up the contents of the powdered leaf. The $25,000 grant will help her hire people for her fledgling company, and she’ll head to Mexico soon to finalize details of her project.

She said Innovesca and its products are part of the supplement trade, but also are a way to improve the lives of farmers who could sell grain and amaranth leaves.

“We’re just really hoping to harvest as much as we can,” she said.

Megha Satyanarayana is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7991 or megha@tribweb.com.

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