One student is examining oils found in
a naturally occurring oregano plants from Mexico for potential
health benefits and anticarcinogenic characteristics.
"We looked at the compounds that make
up oregano and found elements that are cancer-preventing," said
Elvira de Mejia, assistant professor of food science and human
nutrition. "We also examined tea made from this oregano and found it
to contain antimicrobial traits, as well as antioxidants which are
beneficial to general health."
De Mejia is the assistant director and
a mentor of the U.S. AID/Mexico program that brings students from
several Mexican universities to the U of I. The students who
participate in the program have a mentor professor in both Mexico
and at the U of I.
Scott Martin is a professor of food
microbiology at the U of I and is also mentoring a student for this
program. The graduate student working with Martin is examining the
antibacterial characteristics of a fermented cheese compound.
"Listeria is the leading cause of
food-related death in the U.S., over salmonella and all others,"
Martin said. "The reason it is so dangerous is because the bacteria
can grow at refrigerated temperatures. The compound we have
identified and researched is capable of inhibiting the growth of
For the food industry, microbes such as
bacteria can be a serious problem. Currently artificial additives
are used to combat microbes in food, but this research is looking at
natural methods of combating microbes, de Mejia said.
"The student I mentor had already
isolated the inhibiting compound and brought her research with her
from Mexico," Martin said. "We were able to use some of our
knowledge and research on listeria in conjunction with what she was
"The central valley of Mexico (where
the students come from) is one of the largest suppliers of certain
vegetables and produce to the U.S.," de Mejia said. "It's important
that we have quality research of these foods and examine their
De Mejia believes Mexico to be an
excellent food source for the U.S. and hopes that this research will
aid in making the conditions and quality of food better.
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"Mexico does not have nearly as healthy
standards of keeping food free of bacteria and other microbes," de
Mejia said. "Naturally occurring inhibitors are much better than
De Mejia has had a working relationship
with universities on both sides of this project, as she was once a
professor at the Universidad de Queretaro.
"I have seen what both universities are
capable of and their research capacity," de Mejia said. "Some of the
state-of-the-art technology at the U of I would not be available to
these students if they were not here."
De Mejia also cited the library and
researching techniques as assets to the U of I in this program. But
de Mejia feels this connection between universities is important for
other reasons as well.
"The global connection is important for
so many reasons," de Mejia said. "Having researchers and students
exposed to new cultures and ideas is extremely beneficial, as well
as the researching of all the different kinds of crops around the
world that we can use and cultivate for people's benefit."
De Mejia is pleased with how the
academic institutions have complemented the program. The remaining
step is involvement from the industry, de Mejia said.
"It is important that we have members
of the food industry evaluating this research and perhaps taking
these students in to continue their work," de Mejia said. "We have a
student who is planning an internship with Kraft Foods in Mexico
City. This is the first example of interaction between this program
and the food industry."
is directed by Dr. Elizabeth Jeffery in the U of I Department of
Food Science and Human Nutrition and is in the first six months of
its total six years. Funding for the program is provided by the
United States Agency for International Development, and the total
funding for the U.S.-Mexico Training, Internships, Education and
Scholarship Partnership is a six-year, $50 million presidential
[University of Illinois news