It starts with fresh produce. Using a proprietary technology developed by North Carolina State and Rutgers universities, Lila’s team of PHHI researchers extract healthy compounds from muscadine grapes, like anthocyanins, the pigments that give produce its blue, purple or red color and combat chronic diseases and cancer, as well as compounds from kale, like glucosinolates that provide cancer-fighting properties.

The kale and muscadine extracts go through a series of steps to remove unneeded sugars, fats and water, which reduces the final product weight and makes it easier to concentrate the health-promoting compounds. The resulting juice mixtures are combined with protein powders or flours — soy-based for the muscadine mix and hemp for the kale — to create healthy, shelf stable functional food ingredients.

This process makes for a low-calorie, lightweight and flavorful ingredient for food rations, according to Scott Neff, a PHHI research associate helping coordinate the work in Lila’s lab.

“By using edible proteins and flours, we ensure a shelf life far exceeding that of fresh produce. Plus, the ingredients convey the stuff that soldiers want and need from rations, like nutrients, variety, portability and flavor.”

The researchers are still creating prototype functional foods, testing for efficacy and shelf stability, and conducting sensory and nutritional analyses. The team is also looking at using other types of flours, like whey protein, in additional food ingredients. They expect promising results and food products for potential military applications by spring 2014. Jorge Guerrero, a visiting research scholar from Mexico, also contributed to the research and development of the fresh produce-infused ingredients.

“No one else has had the resources or the impetus to tackle the complex biochemical pathways within economically important plants that give rise to natural products that make a difference for human health,” said Lila. “That’s the unique component of this project and where PHHI makes a big difference.”