July 13, 2023

Blog Post

Why Bioactives Matter for Human Health

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Today, 51.8% of U.S. adults have one or more chronic conditions [1], and 90% of every U.S. healthcare dollar goes to treating these diseases [2]. Worldwide obesity rates have nearly tripled since 1975 - making it a continued global health crisis [3], and projections of increasing chronic disease burden, especially amongst an aging population in the U.S., are threatening to overwhelm the healthcare system [4]. And what’s the fix? Researchers continue to agree that the foundational prevention and intervention strategy for most chronic conditions is the promotion of healthy lifestyle behaviors, primarily in the form of changes in diet [5].

Food has a huge impact on our overall health: the Global Burden of Disease Study found that under-consuming whole vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains were three times more deadly than overconsuming sugar, salt, and fat. In the face of this challenging nutritional landscape, we need technology to help us use food to promote and support health, and that includes meeting consumers where they are. It’s important that we innovate foods for health in formats that are affordable, accessible, and varied. Consumers are increasingly seeking food and beverages that provide health benefits [6].

Food has long been utilized as both nourishment and wellness. Before the advent of modern medicine and industrial agriculture, the proverbial ‘medicine cabinet’ of traditional societies was filled primarily with a diverse array of plants. Historically, garlic was used to increase stamina in athletes, aid respiration and digestion, and treat infections from parasites [7]. Amongst the Olmec, Maya, and Aztecs, the bioactives in cacao flowers were used to provide energy, and pre-20th century European manuscripts revealed >100 medicinal uses for cacao/chocolate [8]. Most pre-industrial societies, especially those of indigenous origin, had their own apothecary, full of local plants in the form of herbs, spices, roots, barks, leaves, fruits, and flowers that served as rich sources of bioactives. 

As we consume fewer plants, we’re missing out on the diversity of compounds they contain. Plants are full of natural compounds (also known as phytochemicals, phytonutrients, or secondary metabolites). These compounds enable plants to defend themselves against predators, protect themselves from the elements, and entice friendly pollinators or seed dispersers to do their jobs. They not only help plants survive but - through co-evolution - also confer health-promoting properties to humans. When a plant compound has a biological effect on humans we refer to these compounds as bioactives [9].

Bioactives from nature - synthesized by plants, fungi, and microbial species - are the inception for entire health-based industries: including pharmaceuticals and functional foods and supplement ingredients. The majority of modern medicines are from plant-derived bioactives [10], including the pain-reliever aspirin, the diabetic medication SGLT2 inhibitors, and cancer therapies such as taxol and its analogs. Entire grocery aisles are now dedicated to bioactive-containing supplements, including curcumin, quercetin, and resveratrol to support health. Many foods are rich in polyphenols (one class of bioactives), such as acai, goji, and matcha, and many of them have traditional health uses, such as maca for energy, and turmeric for its antioxidant properties.

Although it may not seem like it, we know surprisingly little about the chemical compounds that plants produce. Only one percent of bioactives in nature have been thoroughly identified and mapped to human biology - leaving 99% left to be discovered, known as the “dark matter” of the plant kingdom. Up until recently, we didn’t have the technological capacity to study these compounds at a meaningful scale. Our understanding of bioactives right now is analogous to where our knowledge of the gut microbiome was 20 years ago. We’re still in the dark ages when it comes to the multi-verse of bioactives from nature.

This is why Brightseed began - to shed light and understanding on these powerful compounds. Brightseed’s technology is powered by Forager®, our core A.I.-powered platform that identifies bioactives in nature and connects them to human health benefits. Forager’s growing visibility into nature enables us to illuminate bioactives for organizations across the consumer health continuum, and connect their benefits to a number of specific health areas. Already, Brightseed has mapped over 4 million compounds to human biological pathways, representing 40x more scientific coverage of plant compounds than previously known. 

The more we at Brightseed can discover, the more we can aid the makers within the food and health industries to improve the way they do things and enable consumers to make more empowered choices for their own health. For example, we’ve partnered with Danone to help them understand the impact that their manufacturing processes have on the natural compounds in soy, and have partnered with Ocean Spray to further understand the health benefits that can be unlocked in cranberries. We’ve also partnered with supplement makers, such as Pharmavite (owner of Nature Made), to discover both novel plant sources and new bioactives that can help to support sleep and aid stress management. 

Our hope is that this knowledge will empower us to act - be that in informing how plants are cultivated and processed, in what diets or supplements may support optimal health, or in informing people to be as nerdy as we are and seek to add more plant diversity to their plates.


1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, September 17). Prevalence of multiple chronic conditions among US adults, 2018. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 22, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2020/20_0130.htm 

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, September 8). Health and economic costs of chronic diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/about/costs/index.htm 

3. World Health Organization. (n.d.). Obesity and overweight. World Health Organization. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight#:~:text=Worldwide%20obesity%20has%20nearly%20tripled,%2C%20and%2013%25%20were%20obese. 

4. Dall TM;Gallo PD;Chakrabarti R;West T;Semilla AP;Storm MV; (n.d.). An aging population and growing disease burden will require a large and specialized health care workforce by 2025. Health affairs (Project Hope). Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24191094/ 

5. Fanelli, S. M., Jonnalagadda, S. S., Pisegna, J. L., Kelly, O. J., Krok-Schoen, J. L., & Taylor, C. A. (2020). Poorer diet quality observed among us adults with a greater number of clinical chronic disease risk factors. Journal of primary care & community health. Retrieved October 22, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7533933/ 

6. Brightseed Health & Nutrition Survey 2022, n=2,000 Adults 18+, US Census Representative; Brightseed Bio-01 Concept Test 2022, n=800 Adults 18+, US Census Representative.

7. Bayan, L., Koulivand, P. H., & Gorji, A. (2014, January). Garlic: A review of potential therapeutic effects. Avicenna journal of phytomedicine. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4103721/#B82

8. Dillinger, T. L., Barriga, P., Escárcega, S., Jimenez, M., Lowe, D. S., & Grivetti, L. E. (2000, August 1). Food of the gods: Cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. OUP Academic. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/130/8/2057S/4686320

9. Balick, Michael J., and Paul Alan Cox. Plants, people, and culture: the science of ethnobotany. Garland Science, 2020.

10. Veeresham, C. (2012, October). Natural products derived from plants as a source of drugs. Journal of advanced pharmaceutical technology & research. Retrieved October 22, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3560124/


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