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Yu Wang, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, part of the USDA. With the award, Wang plans to lead a research team to study extracts from orange peels impact on the gut’s ability to stave off fatty linings in arteries.

Recent research has shown that gut bacteria help develop cardiovascular disease. When they feed on certain nutrients during digestion, gut bacteria produce trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) as a byproduct. TMAO levels are powerful predictors of future cardiovascular disease, according to researchers at the Cleveland Clinic.

Americans’ citrus consumption generates about 5 million tons of orange peels a year, Wang said. The peels are mostly treated as waste, she said, but the Food and Drug Administration considers natural orange peel extracts safe for human consumption.

“This research could be critical to enhancing the cardiovascular health of millions of people worldwide,” said Wang, a faculty member at the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. “In addition to improving consumers’ health, our research results could provide additional economic returns, benefiting U.S. agriculture and food systems.”

For the new UF/IFAS-led project, researchers hypothesize that orange peels will modify gut microbiota and help prevent atherosclerosis, a disease characterized by fatty deposits on the inner walls of arteries.

When gut microbiota break down chemicals called choline and carnitine, the process eventually produces trimethylamine (TMA). Enzymes can then convert TMA into TMAO, Wang said.

But orange peels contain components that interfere with TMA enzymes, Wang said. Researchers believe that action will help prevent atherosclerosis.

To test these hypotheses, the researchers will combine animal studies with enzyme tests to assess how orange peel extract consumption can prevent cardiovascular diseases.

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