Parkinson’s Awareness Month this April provides an opportunity to reflect on the debilitating neuro-degenerative ailment afflicting 1.5 million Americans. While scientists continue to pursue a cure or vaccine, emerging research points to the role that diet may play in reducing disease risk and managing symptoms. One study that caught our eye were experiments carried out by Chinese researchers using a model of fruit flies whose brains contained a protein found predominantly in the brains of Parkinson’s sufferers.

Due to the Parkinson’s-related protein the flies carried, most were unable to fly or climb. The flies were fed extracts of grapes and then were observed for motor skill improvement and longevity. Male flies dosed with grape-extract  exhibited a 50% improvement in climbing ability, while female flies feasting on grape extract lived 19% longer, compared to the grape-less flies. Researchers speculate that grape compounds may protect mitochondria — the power plants of cells — from free-radical damage.

While much more research is needed to confirm such benefits for Parkinson’s sufferers, other studies have explored additional possible benefits of grape consumption. A Michigan State study found that red, green and black grapes helped counter some of sodium’s damaging effects among hypertensive rats. Grape juice helped increase HDL (good) cholesterol and reduce inflammation in one human clinical trial at Boston University. For a delicious way to serve up grapes, try our Pineapple Passion dessert.

Bonus: Vigorous activity may also offer an edge against Parkinson’s. A Harvard study of 125,000 men found that those with the highest levels of exercise had a 50% risk reduction compared to their less active peers. After exercising, cool off with iced tea: Daily black tea drinkers were 71% less likely to develop Parkinson’s in one Chinese study.

Published April 1, 2011