Shengmin Sang, Ph.D., received a prestigious Research Project Grant to pinpoint the role that dietary flavonoids play in preventing metabolic diseases.

Shengmin Sang, Ph.D., has devoted his career to unlocking the secrets of food.

He has probed green tea, whole grains, ginger extracts, apples and other foods to find connections between what we eat and why we’re healthy (or not). Now he is turning his attention to a research project involving several other foods that might lead to a dietary cure for type 2 diabetes.

Sang, a food scientist and distinguished professor at N.C. A&T’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, has been awarded a four-year $2.65 million grant from The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Sang received a Research Project Grant, or R01, the NIH’s oldest and most competitive grant program for biomedical and health-related research. The award is Sang’s fourth NIH R01 grant.

“An R01 grant is the gold standard of research awards, and Dr. Sang has demonstrated throughout his career a capacity for doing crucial work to improve human health,” said CAES Dean Mohamed Ahmedna, Ph.D. “With his latest project, Dr. Sang will help answer important questions about how certain foods we eat can prevent a variety of chronic diseases.”

Sang is the Distinguished Professor of Functional Foods and Human Health with the CAES’ Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. He also is a co-director of the 1890 Center of Excellence for Nutrition, Health, Wellness and Quality of Life, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded collaboration between A&T, Southern University and Tuskegee University.

Sang specializes in researching the connection between functional foods — foods that provide more than just basic energy and nutrition — and human health. In this latest project, Sang and three collaborators from Harvard University will study biomarkers of dietary flavonoid intake, carbonyl stress and metabolic risk.

Flavonoids are compounds commonly found in fruits, vegetables and food and drinks made from plants. They have anti-oxidant properties that scientists believe can fend off toxins, inflammation and chronic ailments such as cardiovascular and kidney disease and diabetes. But prior studies have been unable to show a clear link between flavonoids and chronic disease prevention because scientists couldn’t accurately measure the intake of dietary flavonoids.

“The main goal of this study is to provide scientific evidence that eating flavonoid-rich food can prevent the development of metabolic diseases,” Sang said. “We all believe that fruits and vegetables are healthy foods. In terms of why, we don’t know. We want to know if these healthy foods can lower the levels of toxic reactive carbonyl species in our bodies.”

For this study, Sang and his team will collect samples from human volunteers who consume green tea, soy milk and blueberries — food rich in flavonoids — and use metabolomic approaches to study the biomarkers of the top 15 dietary flavonoids.

Sang and his team also will try to determine if flavonoids can reduce carbonyl stress caused by elevated levels of reactive carbonyl compounds in the body that can lead to a variety of chronic illnesses. The project also includes an epidemiological study that will examine the relationship between these biomarkers and the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The project is potentially groundbreaking.

Sang’s lab was the first to find and measure flavonoid conjugates with reactive carbonyl species (RCS, which are molecules that can damage proteins, lipids and other cells and trigger diabetes) and their oxidized metabolites (substances produced when the body breaks down food) in mice and humans. Sang said this new study will be the first to develop a comprehensive profile of RCS flavonoid conjugates and oxidized flavonoid metabolites in humans and identify the biomarkers associated with flavonoid intake in an epidemiological setting.

In addition, this study also will be the first to measure kinetic changes in RCS conjugates of major dietary flavonoids in humans over a 24-hour period. Sang said these findings could lead to dietary strategies to prevent or combat chronic diseases associated with RCS.

“I have big hopes that this study can provide solid human evidence as for why eating flavonoids can prevent chronic disease,” Sang said. “This is not just to demonstrate the link between flavonoid intake and metabolic disease prevention. By also studying the inter-individual variations on the production of the novel flavonoid metabolites, we can identify the right populations that can benefit more from flavonoid-enriched food.”