New faculty member in nutrition studying functional foods, human health

Sarah A. Johnson, the newest addition to the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition faculty at CSU, is finishing her first academic year as assistant professsor and director of the Functional Foods and Human Health Laboratory.

Before joining CSU last August, Johnson built up a strong background in clinical nutrition while commuting between her home in Tallahassee, Florida, and her job as a clinical and outpatient oncology dietitian in Thomasville, Georgia. The position proved to be a great opportunity. It provided Johnson with exceptional clinical experience, taught her how to effectively interact with patients and solidified her nutrition background and clinical skills.

Sarah.JohnsonWhile the job was rewarding, Johnson describes it as sometimes heart-breaking because of high mortality rates among her patients. She had grown close to many patients and felt compelled to do more to help through nutrition and disease prevention research. She took this inspiration to Florida State University to pursue her Ph.D.

Functional foods focus

At FSU, Johnson had the chance to work with world-renowned expert in functional foods and health Bahram H. Arjmandi. This furthered her interest in the functional food approach. While different sources have varying definitions of functional foods, she said that “functional foods are foods that contain nutrients and non-nutrient bioactive compounds that provide health benefits extending beyond basic nutritional needs.”

Functional foods must affect one or more physiological processes to be classified as such and are identified based on chemical structures and previous research. Knowledge of the food’s compounds and past research lends to predictions of how compounds are working together and the food’s particular function.

While at FSU, Johnson explored the functionality of blueberries and their relation to cardiovascular health. Johnson used functional measures of cardiovascular health such as blood pressure and pulse wave velocity, a measure of arterial stiffness, as well as blood biomarkers to monitor the effects of blueberries. She found that daily blueberry consumption of approximately 1 cup per day improved arterial stiffness and reduced blood pressure in postmenopausal women with pre- and stage-1 hypertension. These findings suggest that blueberries could be a promising functional food in respect to cardiovascular health. As a result of her time at FSU, Johnson developed a broad interest in functional foods, bioactive compounds and human health, particularly vascular aging and cardiometabolic health, as well as cancer prevention.

‘A perfect fit’

She was excited to happen upon an assistant professor position in the area of functional foods and human health in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at CSU and describes it as “a perfect fit.” Johnson said, “I am so happy to be associated with such a forward-thinking, supportive and exceptional department and faculty.”

She moved from Florida with her husband of eight years, Tony Johnson, and three furry companions. While she is still adjusting to the Colorado climate, Johnson enjoys hiking, sightseeing, bicycling, looking for Colorado wildlife and exploring Fort Collins, in addition to doing artsy activities like painting and jewelry-making.

As far as her research goes, Johnson is still finishing up several clinical research studies at FSU and looks forward to starting her own recently funded clinical research study at CSU. Her study will be in collaboration with Chris Melby and Tiffany Weir, both researchers in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

“The direction that our laboratory is going in terms of research is largely in age-related chronic disease prevention, particularly cardiovascular disease and cancer prevention,” she said. “I’m really interested in improving vascular function, including arterial stiffness, endothelial function and blood pressure. I’m especially interested in studying the effects of functional foods and bioactive compounds in improving these parameters in high-risk populations such as postmenopausal women.”

About the study

The study will explore acute and chronic effects of red beetroot juice consumption on cardiovascular and metabolic health in overweight and obese men and postmenopausal women. Red beetroot juice is a natural source of nitrate which is converted into nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide is naturally produced by the endothelium, the inner lining of blood vessels, and promotes proper blood flow and vascular health. The endothelium is essential for nitric oxide production and can be damaged by the common, high-fat Western diet, in addition to factors such as excess body weight.

Johnson predicts that acute and chronic consumption of red beetroot juice, which contains bioactive compounds such as flavonoids and betalains in addition to nitrate, creates responses both dependent and independent of the endothelium and contributes to proper blood flow and improved metabolic responses to a high-fat meal.

In addition to research, Johnson currently mentors two graduate students and also lectures on functional foods for human health at CSU. Johnson looks forward to teaching other courses in her department in the future. She is a registered dietitian nutritionist and devotes much of her time to national committees like the Nutritional Sciences Council Governing Committee within the American Society for Nutrition. Johnson is also very involved in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, including the Evidence-Based Practice Committee.

“The more I’m involved in the Academy, the more I can influence things that I find important such as the clinical competencies that aspiring dietitians should have when they become dietitians, as well as educating and encouraging registered dietitian nutritionists to base their recommendations on the scientific evidence,” she said.