Lutein is a carotenoid with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties important for reducing the risks of several chronic diseases (Buscemi et al., 2018). Biofortification is the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops, like lutein, is improved through plant breeding, genetic medication, and other agronomic practices. Biofortification may be a way to overcome lutein deficiency when supplementation and conventional fortification activities may be difficult to implement and/or limited. The New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Breeding Program has announced the release of ‘NuMex LotaLutein’, a biofortified, lutein-rich Capsicum annuum serrano cultivar.
Increasing the amount of lutein, a carotenoid, in chile peppers is important because it can replace synthetic yellow colorants and is considered a nutraceutical ingredient in functional foods. A large body of evidence has shown that lutein has several beneficial effects, especially on eye health (Buscemi et al., 2018). For adults older than 65 years living in industrialized countries, age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness. Lutein is known to improve or even prevent age-related macular disease, which is the leading cause of blindness and vision impairment. Other carotenoids that are beneficial to eye health are provitamin A carotenoids such as β-carotene; however, the body must convert β-carotene to retinol to provide eye health benefits (Johnson, 2002). In contrast, lutein is more bioavailable than β-carotene and is active without further modification by the human body (Johnson, 2002). Sources of lutein are green leafy vegetables, yellow fruits and vegetables, and egg yolks (Johnson, 2002). Furthermore, many studies have reported that lutein may have positive effects on different clinical conditions, thus ameliorating cognitive function, decreasing the risk of cancer, and improving measures of cardiovascular health (Steiner et al., 2018). Lutein carotenoids cannot be synthesized de novo by humans and must be obtained from dietary sources. Given the prevalence of age-related macular degeneration in industrialized countries, such as the United States, and the expected increase in the human population older than 65 years, additional dietary sources of lutein are desired. The widespread popularity of chile pepper in the United States makes it a logical platform to deliver higher amounts of lutein. Chile peppers have a germplasm base with considerable genotypic diversity for lutein, making it possible to successfully select higher levels of lutein.
Serrano peppers are becoming more popular with home gardeners and food manufacturers as an ingredient for salsas and pico de gallo. Most commercial serrano cultivars have fruits that turn from green to red. Personal communications with commercial pepper breeders have stated that in their hot pepper breeding programs, the serrano is the second most important for sales after jalapeño, and that more acreage of serrano peppers is being used for growth in the Yuma, AZ, pepper production area (Kurt Nolte, Yuma Cooperative Extension Agent, personal communication). ‘NuMex LotaLutein’, which has fruits that turn from green to yellow, not only provides a colorful option in an ever-expanding horticulture market but also offers a lutein-rich carotenoid profile. In addition, ‘NuMex LotaLutein’ can be used by breeders looking to biofortify other Capsicum species.
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