Can Blue M&M's, Blue Gatorade Protect Your Spine? Surprisingly Helpful Foods

5 foods or food additives that may pack unexpected health benefits.
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All those who rejoiced when M&M's swapped out tan for blue in the '90s, crunch on this: New research suggests that a compound nearly identical to the common food dye that gives M&M's and other foods their blue hue may have an unexpected application—treating spinal cord injuries. Here's a look at the candy's potential and a few other vibrant foods whose health benefits might surprise you.

Blue M&M's. Rats given through-the-vein injections of the compound Brilliant Blue G soon after they received paralyzing spinal injuries regained the ability to walk, though with a clumsy gait, while injured rats that didn't get BBG were permanently paralyzed, researchers report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. BBG is chemically similar to FD&C blue dye No. 1, the artificial colorant in blue foodstuffs ranging from those melt-in-your-mouth chocolates to blue Gatorade. In fact, Maiken Nedergaard, who led the research, says the two dyes "are so similar in chemical structure that we could [probably] exchange one for the other." Americans ingest more than 1 million pounds of FD&C blue dye No. 1 annually, according to the study. But before envisioning a day when paramedics drip blue food coloring through IVs at the scene of an accident, consider that what works in rats may not pan out in people. "This is just the beginning," says Nedergaard, who is codirector of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Another caveat: The dye-treated rats temporarily turned a bit, well, blue.

Grapefruit. For years, dieters have befriended the fruit with a bitter bite. It's high in fiber and low in calories, and new research finds grapefruit is ripe with a type of antioxidant that may prevent obesity and protect against type 2 diabetes. Findings newly published in an online issue of the journal Diabetes showed that naringenin, a type of antioxidant called a flavonoid, decreased cholesterol production and stabilized metabolism in mice fed a fat-laden diet. What's more, it kept them from developing insulin resistance, a hallmark of diabetes. Researchers saw that mice fed naringenin along with fatty foods did not gain weight; naringenin, they found, triggered the body to burn fat rather than store it. Alas, a grapefruit-concentrated diet won't rescue diabetics, because it's not possible to get as much naringenin from eating the fruit as researchers used in the study. Moreover, grapefruit can interfere with medications that people take for numerous medical conditions.

Garden peas. This lowly legume may have lofty potential to fight high blood pressure and chronic kidney disease. In a recent study, hypertensive rats with kidney disease who munched daily on a mixture made from proteins found in yellow garden peas saw a significant reduction in their blood pressure and an improvement in kidney function, compared with sick rats on a normal diet. (High blood pressure can hurt kidneys and lead to chronic kidney disease.) The findings offer the possibility of a natural therapeutic product—a food additive or new dietary supplement—that could treat hypertension and or kidney disease, notes Rotimi Aluko of the University of Manitoba in Canada, a coauthor of the study. His team reported its findings at a scientific meeting in March. He speculates a product could be available by, say, 2013 if upcoming human trials support its use. In the meantime, don't expect the same benefit from eating ordinary garden peas, says Aluko. Researchers made the protein mixture with an enzyme not found in the human body.

Watermelon. Watermelon could behave as a natural Viagra, according to a study released last summer. That's because watermelon contains bounties of the plant nutrient citrulline, which can relax and dilate blood vessels and improve blood flow. Viagra works the same way, though its effects are more organ-specific and therefore more potent in treating erectile dysfunction. Other reasons to not overestimate this melon's potential: To get a citrulline fix, you'd need to eat a lot of watermelon, and the rind is where the nutrient is richest.