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Connecting food with chronic diseases

March 6, 2020

Ilce Medina Meza hopes her research can inform eating habits to reduce instances of disease

What people eat on a daily basis can increase their risks for certain chronic diseases.

“We are trying to understand ... how specific meals can increase the risk for chronic diseases.” - Ilce Medina Meza
“We are trying to understand ... how specific meals can increase the risk for chronic diseases.” - Ilce Medina Meza

Ilce Medina Meza, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, hopes her research can inform eating habits to reduce instances of disease.

She is mapping the quantity of oxidative derivatives in several types of food Americans eat, including processed and fast foods. The quantity can indicate increasing levels of oxidative cholesterol and oxidative stress on the cellular level that contribute to the risk of cardiovascular diseases, obesity and diabetes.

Heat and light trigger cholesterol oxidation, so food processing, packaging and storage can contribute to the formation of cholesterol oxidation products. Medina Meza said they’ve identified more than 80 compounds and derivatives from cholesterol and her research is being used to create a database of these derivatives in different foods.

Chemical engineering is a unique angle when it comes to looking at food exposure and disease linkages.

“We know that more than 35 percent of oxidative stress comes from food,” she said. “We are trying to understand what happens to our bodies when we eat and how the exposure to specific meals can increase the risk for chronic diseases.”

Medina Meza is using her oxidative stress findings to develop related biomarkers that can be studied in brain tissue. The presences of specific biomarkers can be indicative of oxidative derivatives and likewise cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.

Research by Ilce Medina Meza could lead to earlier diagnoses of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Research by Ilce Medina Meza could lead to earlier diagnoses of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Her research could help lead to earlier diagnoses of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. A paper about her initial research (funded by the Center for Research on Ingredient Safety at MSU) was published in the August 2018 issue of the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.

The paper, titled “The Role of Cholesterol Oxidation Products in Food Toxicity,” was also featured in the International Life Sciences Institute’s June 2018 Food Safety Briefs.

“We are not nutritionists. We are not dietitians. We are chemical engineers, and we are studying food,” she said. “The novelty is the multidisciplinary approach that’s neither pure food science nor pure chemical engineering.”

Q & A with Ilce Medina Meza

Title: Assistant professor, MSU Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering

Joined MSU: 2016

Education: BS and MS in chemical engineering, Technological Institute of Orizaba (Mexico), 1998 and 2002, respectively; PhD in food science, Technical Institute of Veracruz (Mexico) and University of Bologna (Italy), 2011

Hometown: Orizaba in the Mexican state of Veracruz, near the slopes of the volcano Citlaltépetl, the tallest mountain in Mexico

Influential or inspiring person: My father. He showed me that the best legacy a child can receive is an education. He was the most brilliant mind that I ever met. I am honored to do things that he dreamed about.

If I weren’t a researcher I’d be: Working on an oil drilling platform. I studied chemical engineering with that purpose. Then I became more interested in foods and health, and I earned a PhD in the area.

Something many people don’t know about me is: When in high school, I won a championship in Taekwondo. It was third place, but I got my medal.

I went into this field of study because: As part of my doctorate research, I spent several years at the University of Bologna in Professor Giovanni Lercker’s lab working in lipids and cholesterol oxidation. Food researchers are aware of oxidative damage in cells and tissues, but we are still far from providing tools to reduce lipid and cholesterol oxidation and decrease health risks. I strongly believe that part of the problem is that research has focused on the biology and disregarded the chemistry behind oxidation and the effects of food. That’s why I am in this field, to find new ways to control and monitor the chemistry of lipid oxidation.

How my research can help us better understand chronic diseases: Food plays an important, a remarkable role in chronic diseases, and we can no longer overlook this reality. For example, cardiovascular disease is still a leading cause of deaths worldwide. Oxidative stress and inflammation are two key contributors to cardiovascular disease. We need to keep trying to find ways to reduce the risk (of developing cardiovascular disease) and food is one way.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. It was written by Beth Bonsall, communications manager in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.