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Safety of isoflavones in dietary supplements targeted by Illinois initiative

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- A multidisciplinary team of scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is embarking on a comprehensive five-year study of the effects of soy isoflavones found in dietary supplements on various body tissues.

At the heart of the project is the safety of phytoestrogens -- estrogen-like compounds in plants that are generally thought to have driven the anti-cancer and cholesterol-lowering benefits that nutrition researchers have attributed to soy consumption in numerous studies.

The project is funded by an $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Leading the effort is William G. Helferich, a professor of food science and human nutrition, whose research has shown that high levels of the isoflavone genistein promote the growth of cancerous cells in animal models representative of postmenopausal women with estrogen-dependent breast cancer.

"Under the grant, three groups will conduct preclinical investigations on animal models, looking for a balance of potential effectiveness and safety issues," Helferich said. "We will look at how different doses of isoflavones and the timing of exposure affect breast, brain and adipose tissues (fat). Another group will look at the mechanisms at work between isoflavones and estrogen receptors."

While most food scientists stress the importance of consuming soy as part of a whole-foods approach, there has been a proliferation of dietary supplements and food additives containing isoflavone extracts. These products show up in food, which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, but some of the supplements, which contain much higher concentrations of isoflavones than are found in soy-based or supplemented food, are not regulated.

Because phytoestrogens mimic estrogen, the supplements often are marketed to women as safe alternatives to hormone-replacement therapy, which has been linked to cardiovascular problems and dement
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Contact: Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
jebarlow@uiuc.edu
217-333-5802
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
29-Sep-2004


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