A project is underway to assess whether local wild vegetables eaten in Southern Europe have health-promoting properties.

The project, which is being carried out with European Commission funding, was outlined at the British Pharmaceutical Conference this week. Seven European research groups, coordinated by the School of Pharmacy, University of London, are involved.

“We are looking at wild and weedy food plants that are traditionally consumed in isolated villages in southern Europe. The aim is to better understand the local uses of the plants and to search for new nutraceuticals that might be produced commercially,” Dr Andrea Pieroni, from the School of Pharmacy, said.

Although the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet in terms of the high consumption of fruit and vegetables are well established, little is known about the properties of the local wild vegetables.

The new project is looking at plants traditionally eaten in rural communities of Southern Italy, Greece and Southern Spain.

The research combines ethnobotanical study with modern molecular biology and pharmacology. It involves identification of the food plants, documentation of the gathering and cooking processes, and then investigation of pharmacological activities.

To date, over 100 species used as food have been identified in Gallicianò and Castelmezzano in Southern Italy. Many of these plants are considered to be healthy by the local users, sometimes because of their bitterness.

The conference heard that some of the plants have shown significant activity in anti-oxidant assays. This could suggest potential benefit for prevention of cardiovascular disease, a statement from the conference said.

The project involves research centres in Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and the UK.