Thursday, June 3, 2010

Eat your carrots!

Ok, I’m back to my favorite natural product: Terpenoids!
So terpenoids are derivatives of these five-carbon chains called isoprene units. They cyclize and polymerize into larger chains: sometimes 10, 15, 20, 30, 40+ carbon chains. These are extremely varied and have many medicinal properties. For instance, the major anti-malaria (a tropical parasite) medication is a terpenoid. The major breast cancer drug is Taxol, and it’s a terpenoid.

There are over 50,000 terpenoids and they are extremely varied. Many organisms make these molecules, but one family of organisms makes more than any other: PLANTS. So this post will be devoted to the nutritionally acquired terpenoids that make all of us happy. 

Maybe when you were little, your mom told you to eat your carrots because they would make you see better…well maybe she was right! Carrots are high in B-carotene, which is a precursor to Vitamin A. Vitamin A is required for vision! Plus, carrots are delicious!

So here is B-carotene and Vitamin A. Do you see how B-carotene is basically two Vitamin A? 

Well B-carotene is broken in two by the addition of water to create Vitamin A. Then Vitamin A is coupled with a protein called opsin to make rhodopsin, which is one of the primary proteins allowing you to see images and light. Vitamin A is called a co-factor to the protein opsin, and without it, Rhodopsin doesn’t form and you can’t see. Amazing! 

There are lots of other carotenoids (molecules related to B-carotene) and some of the more common ones look like this: 

See all those different doubled-lines? Those are double bonds and they affect the way that those chemicals absorb light. They appear different colors to us – yellow, orange, red – and they have the ability to absorb free radicals and prevent them from doing damage in our bodies. 

You can get B-carotene from a variety of sources. I prefer peppers! 
Other terpenes that are equally delicious are from another set of plants. Mint, basil, catnip, and a variety of other herbs derive their delicious bright essential oils from a special sac of oils kept on the leaf. These oils are extremely volatile, and when the sac is opened (either by the plant or by rupturing during eating or crushing) they flood our senses with delicious and nutritious smells. 
The major terpenes from mint are menthol (yes, like this stuff in Vicks Vapo-Rub. All you Minnesotans know exactly what I am talking about!)

  And BASIL! I love basil. Basil has cineole and limonene, which give it that delicious lemony flavor.

These sacs that hold the oils? They are called tricomes, specifically glandular tricomes. They look like this (electron microscope picture)

These are the sacs that the plant can choose to open (maybe to signal pollenators or to defend itself), or they get crushed while we eat them. This is why dried herbs don't taste as good as fresh herbs - the tricomes fall off when you dry the plant! 
 I hope that you have some appreciation for terpenes and how you can enjoy them in your food. I'll be back tomorrow with my week of adventures (Personal trainer! New recipe!) and some eats!

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