Health and Wellness

logo of a heartOur researchers improve health and wellness for humans and animals, making transformational discoveries in disciplines ranging from Alzheimer’s to zinc digestibility. In short, ACES is committed to advancing health.

These impacts are made possible through public and private investments, legislator support, multi-institutional partnerships, and the dedication of faculty and student scholars. 

Below, we showcase a fraction of our world-class research in the area of health and wellness. You can also view a pdf version and subscribe to one of our ACES e-newsletters to stay abreast of new developments in ACES research. 

STRONG Kids 2: A Cells-to-Society Approach

Family cooking together

Recent reports show that 17% of children in the United States, between the ages of 2 and 17, are considered obese. Dietary habits formed during the first 5 years of life are strong indicators of lifelong eating patterns.

The STRONG Kids 2 program is collecting important data that offer new insight into how a child’s biology and environment work together to contribute to childhood obesity risk and other health factors.

The STRONG Kids 2 research program is a transdisciplinary, longitudinal research study involving 468 mothers and their offspring, tracked since children were 1 week old. Researchers will follow the children’s biology and environment over the first five years of life, investigating everything from diet and gut microbiome, to child socioemotional and behavioral characteristics, to family and child care environments. When these kids turn 5 years old, the researchers will take it a step further, as they investigate how body weight influences the children’s cognitive abilities.

The STRONG Kids 2 team of investigators includes those with expertise in pediatric nutrition, human genetics, the gut microbiome, sensory science, human development and family science, and early care and education.

STRONG Kids 2 is expected to play a key role in the future of childhood obesity prevention and intervention programs.

Funding: This research is supported by over $4M in grants from the National Dairy Council, the Gerber Foundation, the Christopher Family Foundation, the USDA Hatch program, the National Institutes of Health, and the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Illinois.

ACES investigators and departments
Barbara Fiese, Human Development and Family Studies/Family Resiliency Center
Sharon Donovan, Food Science and Human Nutrition/Division of Nutritional Sciences
Kelly Bost, Human Development and Family Studies
Soo-Yeun Lee, Food Science and Human Nutrition/Division of Nutritional Sciences
Brent McBride, Human Development and Family Studies/Division of Nutritional Sciences
Margarita Teran-Garcia, Human Development and Family Studies/Division of Nutritional Sciences

Related news stories

Study: Families spend half of their evening meal distracted by technology, tasks

Kids in the kitchen

Family food involvement at preschool age positively influences eating habits

A happier emotional climate at mealtimes may mean healthier food choices by children

Genes and the environment? Study looks at factors, patterns between children and caregivers that lead to obesity risk

Why purple corn may be better

purple corn
Photo courtesy of L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois

Illinois researchers are harnessing the benefits of purple corn through multiple projects. 

Purple, red, and blue corn get their bright colors from phytochemicals in the pericarp - outer layer - of the kernel. These phenolic compounds, called anthocyanins, may fight obesity, inflammation, and diabetes.

The researchers bred 20 genetically distinct varieties of purple corn to find the optimal combination of anthocyanins with disease-fighting properties. Testing these compounds in studies with mice, the team found reductions in fat cell content from 8% to 56%, reductions of insulin resistance from 29 to 64%, and a decrease of cell glucose uptake from 30% to139%, depending on the composition of the phenols. The results of this study showed that the purple corn extract prevented obesity and insulin resistance by modulating important genes related to inflammation, lipid, and glucose metabolism in mice.

The mouse cells simulate those of obese people, and those at risk for diabetes. The scientists hope to one day translate their findings in mice into in vivo studies with humans.

The pigments serve a dual purpose, providing an array of colors that can be used as food colorants, replacing artificial dyes with an inexpensive, natural product. Through additional studies, t researchers found specific milling procedures that can enhance the extraction of anthocyanins, making the process more economical. They’ve also looked at the stability of corn-derived phenols in food products, growing nearly 400 lines of colored corn to find varieties where anthocyanin concentrations remain constant through generations and across environments.

The team hopes to one day insert genes encoding these high-power, high-value anthocyanins into elite corn hybrids that can be grown across the Midwest, adding value to the existing corn supply chain.

Funding: This research is made possible with funds from USDA NIFA and $1.4 M from Kraft Foods Group (now the Kraft Heinz Company)

ACES investigators and departments
Qiaozhi Zhang, Food Science and Human Nutrition
Elvira de Mejia, Food Science and Human Nutrition/Division of Nutritional Sciences
Diego Luna-Vital, Food Science and Human Nutrition
Subhiksha Chandrasekaran, Food Science and Human Nutrition
Laura Chatham, Crop Sciences
John Juvik, Crop Sciences/Division of Nutritional Sciences
Vijay Singh, Agricultural and Biological Engineering/Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory
Deepak Kumar, Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Related news stories
Study: Phenols in purple corn fight diabetes, obesity, inflammation in mouse cells

Natural pigment in purple corn fights diabetes, study shows

Blue and purple corn: Not just for tortilla chips anymore

Kraft, U of I announce new research collaboration to affordably derive food colors from corn

What does the fox say [about human behavior]?

Silver fox

Genetic research in domesticated foxes may one day help people struggling with autism, bipolar, and other social-behavioral disorders. The effort is part of a decades-long investigation to uncover the genetic basis of social behavior in mammals.

A Russian scientist established a long-term experiment in the 1950’s, selecting fox populations in two different directions, one for tame and another for aggressive behavior. More than 50 generations later, the behaviors are now ingrained. 

As part of an international collaboration, Illinois researchers sequenced the silver fox genome as well as the genomes of tame and aggressive foxes in the Russian experiment. They confirmed that these behaviors do have a genetic basis, and found a specific variant of a gene, SorCS1, in the tamest of the tame foxes. These foxes are the most social and least stressed, actively seeking human attention when handlers are nearby.

Although social behavior is genetically complex, the finding represents an important first step towards greater understanding of mammalian behavior. First, the fox brain is much more advanced and similar to humans’ than typical experimental subjects, mice. And before the fox genome was sequenced, mapping behaviors to specific genes was much more challenging. The discoveries out of this project will continue to reveal relationships between genes, neurological processes, and behaviors that could one day lead to medical interventions for affected communities.    

Funding: This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health ($2.3 M), USDA Hatch funds, the Campus Research Board and the Office of International Programs at Illinois, as well as international funds originating in Russia and China. 

ACES investigators and departments
Anna Kukekova, Animal Sciences
Jennifer Johnson, Animal Sciences
Halie Rando, Animal Sciences

Related news stories

Sequenced fox genome hints at genetic basis of behavior

What does the fox say [about human behavior]?

Study links fox domestication to gene activity in the pituitary gland

Diet, microbiome, and human health


Many studies have linked diet-induced metabolic and gastrointestinal diseases with imbalances in the gut microbiome. The human gastrointestinal microbiota is the collection of trillions of bacteria that reside throughout the gastrointestinal tract. These bacteria can metabolize dietary components that are indigestible by human digestive enzymes, making the diet an important factor in the relationship between diet, the microbiota, and human health.  

While the human gastrointestinal microbiota has been increasingly linked to health outcomes, understanding how specific foods alter the microbiota is limited. Researchers from the Nutrition and Human Microbiome Laboratory at Illinois are studying the link between diet, gut microbes, and health using big data approaches.

Walnuts are just one in a line of fiber-rich foods that have interested scientists for their impact on the microbiome and health. Dietary fiber acts as a food source for gut microbiota, helping the bacteria to do their jobs—breaking down complex foods, providing nutrients, or helping us feel full, for example.

One of the lab’s recent studies found that consuming walnuts not only positively impacted the gut microbiota and reduced microbial-derived secondary bile acids, but also reduced LDL-cholesterol levels in adults participating in the study; good news for cardio, metabolic, and gastrointestinal health.

Another study showed that broccoli may impact the gut microbiome to improve human health. Along with a host of other health benefits, broccoli has been shown in research studies to play a role in slowing certain types of cancer. A recent study from the lab showed that microbial changes that occur in the human gut microbiome after eating broccoli might be behind the vegetable’s anti-cancer power.

Funding: USDA-ARS, $200,000

ACES investigators and departments
Hannah Holscher, Food Science and Human Nutrition/Division of Nutritional Sciences
Mike Miller, Food Science and Human Nutrition/Division of Nutritional Sciences
Elizabeth Jeffery, Food Science and Human Nutrition/Division of Nutritional Sciences
Kelly Swanson, Animal Sciences/Division of Nutritional Sciences

Related news stories
Walnuts impact gut microbiome and improve health

Microbial changes in the gut may be behind broccoli’s anti-cancer power

Shift in gut bacteria observed in fiber supplement study may offer good news for weight loss

Holscher receives prestigious Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research Award for early-career innovation in nutrition