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Rutgers professor creates 'super lettuce'

Kale, chia, quinoa and blueberries are touted as a few of the nature’s “superfoods.” Ilya Raskin may have just created another one.

Raskin, distinguished professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology, created Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce, a “super lettuce” that has three times the number of polyphenols of blueberries, high levels of fiber and low levels of sugar.

Polyphenols are believed to help with preventing cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

Raskin’s results yielded a type of lettuce with burgundy red leaves that sometimes look almost black or dark blue. He said the texture of RSL is very similar to conventional types of lettuce.

It took a team of two to three people and three years to create RSL. The product appeared in East and West Coast grocery stores for the first time last Saturday.

RSL is the result of a long-standing effort to enhance the nutritional qualities of food through non-genetically modified or transgenic means. The research was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health when Raskin received a grant.

With regard to money, potatoes are the most-consumed vegetable in the United States, and lettuce is the second-most consumed, with $2 billion worth of lettuce grown in the country each year.

Raskin and his team used tissue culture selection and breeding to make RSL. They started off with conventional red leaf lettuce, intending to make it nutritionally better.

Tissue culture selection involves growing millions of cells in a petri dish and looking for cells that look particularly “interesting.” Then the whole plant base is regenerated based on those cells. From that point on, Raskin relies on natural genetic diversity.

“If you do it smartly, you can do breeding on a cellular level rather than growing seeds on the field, which takes lots of space, time and money,” he said.

Along with a high concentration of polyphenols, RSL has a large amount of antioxidants, which are known for sharpening mental capabilities and helping with health problems such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

RSL is in stores, but Raskin has plans and is working on creating different kinds of lettuce that have even more nutrition — he wants to make varieties that have high concentrations of iron, vitamin D and vitamin C.

He also wants to work on green lettuce and eventually integrate that into the market as well.

Shiumei Chung, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences first-year student, called the development of RSL “pretty amazing.”

Her willingness to buy RSL depends on how much it costs, but if it is the same price as conventional lettuce, she would try it out.

RSL is currently patented to Rutgers, and the University licensed the patent to Nutrasorb LLC, a spin-off company of Rutgers that specializes in enhancing phytoactive compounds in foods.

Nutrasorb sold the seeds to several large lettuce growers who are now responsible for commercializing it.

The lettuce growers are not selling the product under the name “Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce,” though, according to an article in My Central Jersey.

The first farm that will sell RSL is Coastline Family Farms in Salinas, California. They are marketing the lettuce as “Nutraleaf,” and CFF will grow, sell and ship Nutraleaf Burgundy Leaf Lettuce and Nutraleaf Burgundy Romaine in North and South America.

But because CFF is not using the name “Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce,” it is putting a Rutgers trademark on the bag, “FOOD4GOOD,” and will try to help consumers identify it as a Rutgers product.

Rashika Agrawal, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, had the same sentiments as Chung.

“That’s awesome,” she said. “It’s going to be really helpful for people.”

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