KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — One of the major goals of Dole’s Nutrition Research Laboratory is to prove to consumers how healthy fruits and vegetables are, and director Nick Gillitt has the perfect test subjects: A NASCAR pit crew.
Gillitt, who is also an organic chemist, would like to test fruit and vegetables’ ability to keep oxidative stress down, which is another way of saying helping people recover faster after exercise.
But the challenge is to find a subject group that will actually follow the directions of eating prescribed amounts of food, which is where the pit crew comes in.
Gillitt said he’s talked with NASCAR’s Hendrick Motorsports, headquartered in nearby Concord, which owns cars driven by Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Hendrick employs 10 pit crew members for each of the 4 teams, a perfect number for an experiment.
“Competition to get into that group is intense, so they stay in,” Gillitt said. “It’s a controlled population. They will do it.”
Five years in
The Dole Nutrition Institute opened in the fall of 2008 in Kannapolis, on the site of a former textile mill, which employed thousands of workers before it lost business to cheaper imports.
Dole president and chief executive officer David Murdock built the institute to provide consumers with scientifically tested data showing how beneficial fresh fruits and vegetables are to eat.
“He’s not a scientist,” Gillitt said, “but he realizes how important science is.”
Gillitt is one of four full-time Dole scientists at the laboratory, which is housed in the institute. But in the campus’ three buildings, he said there are more than 300 scientists and 600 workers.
The institute has partnerships with eight local universities and one community college who operate on the campus:
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which runs the Nutrition Research Institute;
North Carolina State University, which runs the Plants for Human Health Institute;
University of North Carolina-Charlotte;
North Carolina A&T University;
North Carolina Central University;
University of North Carolina-Greensboro;
Appalachian State University;
Duke University; and
Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
The study using a NASCAR pit crew may sound ambitious, but Gillitt said the research lab has already conducted and published one showing bananas’ effectiveness during exercise, using Appalachian State cyclists.
Last year researchers at the institute published results in a peer-reviewed journal showing bananas did just as well as sports drinks for people during and after exercising.
Two groups of Appalachian State cyclists consumed either sports drink or half a banana and water every 15 minutes during a 2-3 hour simulated road race.
In addition to measuring performance between the two groups, blood samples were taken before and after exercise and studied for sugar levels to determine performance and recovery.
The results showed there was virtually no difference between the two groups.
“The body processed the fuel the same way,” Gillitt said. “We didn’t think bananas would be better, but being the same is amazing because sports drink makers spend millions (of dollars on them).”
He said many high performance athletes aren’t enthused about drinking what amounts to sugar water, but they like the results, and now they have an alternative.
There’s no reason a retailer couldn’t market bananas next to the sports drinks in their stores, Gillitt said, and it can apply to 10 year-olds playing soccer, not just high performance athletes.
Pineapples up next
Another study Gillitt is looking forward to is testing the blood benefits from bromelain, which is a compound found in pineapples.
He said bromelain has long been thought to have anti-inflammatory properties and aids in digestion, but no studies exist showing it.
“The pineapple world needs that bridge between ‘we know what’s in it’ to ‘we know how it affects human health,’” he said.
One tool he can use is called a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance 950 machine. He said it’s one of the two most powerful such machines in the world which performs similarly to an MRI machine on people, but the NMR is for imaging food.
“I’d like to image bromelain and then see how it acts in the blood,” he said.
The NMR 950 is an example of another of the Dole institute’s goals, which is to house some of the world’s best science equipment and then use them to attract the most talented scientists.
Gillitt said it’s working.
He said this fall, the institute plans to open lab space for other companies in the core lab building, which could include desks, sinks, storage and equipment to run trials, in addition to all the other equipment at the facility.
And Gillitt said Murdock donated land on the campus to the city of Kannapolis for its city hall and a 400-seat auditorium. which should begin to be built in early 2014.
Gillitt says of his boss, who spends time in his office at the institute about 10 times a year, “His belief in science drove us to be here.”