Fairly common as an herbal tea and often sold dried, nettle leaf or stinging nettle is an herbaceous flowering plant originally native to Europe but can now be found in other parts of the world including North America. Nettle is also starting to gain popularity in culinary circles as replacement to cooked spinach in soups, pastas, and other dishes.
Diana Obanda, assistant professor in Nutrition & Food Science at the University of Maryland (UMD) and principal investigator of the grant research, noted, "You find a lot in previous work about nettles as a food in some cultures, and the extract is marketed and widely available as a supplement. But nobody had studied nettle as a food for health benefits, and so I wanted to study it as a functional food in the diet. Does it have a similar effect?"
Obanda believes that similar to how other once overlooked plants such as kale and moringa have gained popularity in the US, nettle has potential functional food applications.
"We need food for energy and nutrients for daily functioning, but a functional food is a step beyond just food. It has specific health effects that it provides to your body aside from just energy and nutrients It is not a drug or a medicine, but it can prevent certain diseases. In my lab, I focus on functional foods that are important for the protection of metabolic health. They are not a substitute for exercising and living a healthy lifestyle, but they provide extra health benefits to provide an overall protective effect for better health," said Obanda.
Obanda who has studied nettle for the past five years has conducted research on the plant’s impact on fat accumulation (in mice).
Nettle’s potential as functional food for the gut microbiome
The grant research - led by Obanda at UMD - will investigate nettle’s impact on the gut microbiome and subsequently, the immune system.
Researchers will explore how specific phytochemicals in the nettle leaf change or affect the gut bacteria species, and how those mechanisms may impact indicators for obesity and diabetes, added Obanda.
Obanda explained that her research will explore nettle’s impact to changing bacteria levels in the gut.
“The gut bacteria shapes the immune system, and the immune system also shapes the gut bacteria, so it is a cycle that we don't know much about. The innovation of this work is trying to elucidate how this specialty food impacts our health through the microbiota, and then going on to pinpoint what exactly happens to translate that into beneficial effects," said Obanda.
UMD will grow nettle at its Research Greenhouse Complex, which uses computer-controlled precision growth chambers and automated light, temperature and humidity controls to grow plants for research.
Under the USDA grant, which runs until 2024, UMD researchers will first conduct basic research in cells and animal models and then work up to clinical studies where those findings can be applied to public health practice, said Obanda.
“I'm looking forward to forming collaborations with scientists across clinical science and public health to help translate this work into usable data for the general public health."