Photo of Rocío Alejandra Chávez-Santoscoy

Biotechnology & medicine

Rocío Alejandra Chávez-Santoscoy

Turns everyday affordable foods, such as bread and tortillas, into ones capable of preventing disease.

Year Honored

Autonomous University of Baja California

Latin America

Hails From

Not everyone eats well, either because they do not want to or because they cannot. Regardless of what each person decides to consume, in some societies certain diets, which are famous for their health benefits, dominate, such as the Mediterranean diet. One of its main components is extra virgin olive oil, which is known as being able to protect the brain against Alzheimer's disease. Across the pond, the Mexican diet also has its own traditional health foods, such as black beans and prickly pear. The problem is that to enjoy their benefits, "the amount that would have to be consumed every day to obtain an effective dose is too high," explains the young Alejandra Chavez.

To prevent people from having to gorge themselves on these foods to improve their health, the young researcher is working on a way to take advantage of the compounds, known as flavonoids, that make them beneficial. To this end she has developed a method which allows them to maintain their beneficial properties when they are introduced, in appropriate doses, into other foods.

The objective is to produce functional food, enriched with these substances, and for people, even those with fewer resources, to have access to its benefits. For these pioneering efforts, Chávez has been selected as one of the 35 Innovators Under 35 Latin America 2017 by the MIT Technology Review, Spanish edition.

One of the stand-out properties of flavonoids is their ability to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer due to anti-inflammatory activity. In addition, by modulating cholesterol transport in the intestine and liver, they help to control cholesterol blood levels, which is of vital importance in certain cardiovascular conditions. Thirdly, another benefit is that they can help to control glycaemia, which is why they could help diabetics.

"Drugs are expensive, not everyone can afford medical treatment," laments Chavez. "But you can control your diet and what you eat," she says. To this end, she not only tries to extract the most beneficial components of some foods but she also adds them into other traditional foods which are affordable to most people, such as bread and tortillas. "It would possible to improve the general state of health and prevent diseases by introducing them into the foods which are the cheapest and which everyone consumes, since they are the staples in Mexico" says Chavez.

However the price advantage conflicts with the disadvantage that all of these are baked goods, which increases the difficulty of enriching them with flavonoids, because, if these are "directly incorporated, they degrade," explains the researcher. In her work, Chavez has discovered that during the nanoencapsulation process of these substances into other natural compounds, similar to dietary fiber, 90% of the compound incorporated into the dough before baking remains intact at the end of this process. This nanoencapsulation also protects the substances from the acidic environment in the stomach, which means they can effectively reach the colon, where they are absorbed and directly exert their main anti-inflammatory effect.

Several articles published in scientific journals back the benefits of flavonoids, while the nanoencapsulation process and its use for the production of functional foods is pending patent. The next step is to get a company which produces processed food interested in licensing this process to enrich their breads, tortillas or cookies.

President of the Suanfarma group and Innovators under 35 Latin America 2017 jury member, Héctor Ara, values "the innovative path undertaken by Chávez" and her "intense work to create a biodegradable product that allows the programmed release of bioactive compounds which can be used in functional food, and is, moreover, very affordable."