ProjectEvolutionary and ecological implications of phytoestrogens in the primate diet
Phytoestrogens, or naturally occurring estrogen-like plant compounds, are widespread in leguminous plant foods of humans. Their prevalence in many current human societies has recently increased due to the consumption of processed foods containing soy. This increase is of interest since these compounds can affect human health and reproduction through interactions with our endocrine system. Yet, despite their potential significance, very little is known about pre-agricultural human or wild primate exposure to phytoestrogens. To fill this knowledge void, I am examining differences in the prevalence of phytoestrogens in the diets of various primate species from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The ultimate goal of this research is to test the "plant defense", "self-medication", and "biochemical coincidence" hypotheses for why primates ingest phytoestrogens. For example, if phytoestrogens are produced as a plant defense, then they are expected to be found in leaves but not fruits, and thus more prevalent in the diets of folivores than frugivores. By using primate field studies to evaluate the importance of dietary niche and phylogeny to phytoestrogen consumption, I am also attempting to provide insight into pre-agricultural human exposure to phytoestrogens to give context to our current dietary practices.