A flower a day keeps obesity away? Study says yes

Obesity is a major public health challenge.
Sejal Sharma
Rosella stock photo.
Rosella stock photo.

Rattaya Boonlorm/iStock  

Of the eight billion world population, it is estimated that over 2.3 billion children and adults are either overweight or obese. With the current growth rate, we’re probably looking at every one in five women and one in seven men living with obesity by the year 2030.

This is problematic. Obesity is a major health concern as it paves the way for coronary heart diseases, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes, and sometimes can turn fatal.

Currently treated with the use of lifestyle modifications like a healthy eating plan and regular exercise, not much research has been done on the application of food-bioactive ingredients in its treatment and prevention.

So it was refreshing when researchers from Australia started studying the properties of an edible flower and found that it may be used as part of supplements to treat or manage obesity.

A first-of-its-kind study

The team, led by Ph.D. candidate Manisha Singh at RMIT University in Melbourne, took phenolic extracts and hydroxycitric acid from Hibiscus sabdariffa, also called as roselle plant, and assessed their potential to inhibit adipogenesis - the process of fatty cells (adipocytes) accumulating in the body.

Although adipocytes play a key role in regulating a body’s energy and sugar levels, a high intake of energy can cause adipocytes to grow exponentially over time, contributing to obesity.

The methods used by the team involved the treatment of human stem cells with both phenolic extracts and hydroxycitric acid taken from the roselle plant before they were turned into fat cells.

As per the RMIT press release, the cells treated with hydroxycitric acid showed no change in the fat content of the adipocytes, whereas the cells treated with phenolic extracts had 95% less fat as compared to control cells.

Lead author Manisha Singh’s Ph.D. supervisor Professor Benu Adhikari said that the results of this study could have an impact on how we approach obesity management. While the currently available medication is effective, it can also have negative side effects such as high blood pressure or impact the kidney and liver.

“The phenolic extracts from the roselle could help create a health food product that is effective in interfering with the formation of fat cells, but also bypass the bad side effects of some medications,” Adhikari said. 

The next steps for the team include encapsulating the phenolic extracts from the flower for use in health food products, perhaps turning the extracts into a refreshing drink.

The study is published in the International Journal of Food Science and Technology.

Study abstract:

Adipogenesis is a complex physiological process involving the formation of adipocytes and accumulation as adipose tissues. It is one of the contributors for the development of obesity. This study assessed the potential of phenolic extracts and potassium hydroxycitrate, obtained from Hibiscus sabdariffa, to inhibit adipogenesis. The phenolic extracts were obtained using organic solvents (methanol, ethanol and ethyl acetate) and water individually. Human adipose-derived stem cells (hADSCs) were selected to study the impact of these extracts on adipogenesis. Results showed that phenolic extracts were able to reduce lipid accumulation by about 95% in hADSCs, while potassium hydroxycitrate did not show any reduction. All the phenolic extracts downregulated the gene expression of two key adipogenic markers (PPAR-γ and aP2). Ethanol extracts exhibited the highest downregulation of PPAR-γ and aP2 by 3 and 10 times, respectively. There was no improvement in the anti-adipogenic potential when the phenolic extract was combined with potassium hydroxycitrate confirming that phenolic compounds were responsible for the inhibition of adipogenesis. These results indicate that phenolic extracts from H. sabdariffa have potential to regulate the expression of adipogenic genes and restrict the lipid accumulation in mature adipocytes. Thus, phenolic extracts can be used in formulations intended to manage obesity.

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