Scots scientists have modified a range of commercially available soups to boost vitamin E levels. They hope pregnant women consuming the products will have babies with built-in protection against asthma.
Previous research has shown women lacking vitamin E in their diet give birth to children who are more at risk of developing asthma by the age of five.
The team added natural ingredients containing the vitamin, such as sun-dried tomatoes, sunflower oil, beans and lentils, to canned soup.
In a pilot study starting in the next month, 25 women 12 weeks into their pregnancies will be given three bowls of vitamin E-enhanced soup a week. Another group of 25 women will eat ordinary soup, but neither will know what variety they are getting.
Lung function tests performed on the mothers' babies during the first week of life will look for any early signs of asthma.
The treated soups contain about 3mg of vitamin E. They are designed to raise daily intake of the vitamin from the current national average of 8mg to around 15mg, which is recommended for good health.
Study leader Professor Graham Devereux, from Aberdeen University, said: "The ultimate aim of this research is to reduce the prevalence of asthma by an effective, inexpensive, acceptable and safe public health dietary intervention.
"If successful, the proposed intervention could form the basis of public health dietary advice to pregnant women that could reduce the prevalence of childhood asthma by 15% to 20% within five years."
The soups come in three flavours – cream of tomato, lentil and tomato, and three bean and pasta.
Mr Devereux said it is not certain that vitamin E alone protects against childhood asthma. For this reason it is important to use natural sources of the vitamin containing a rich mixture of nutrients rather than a supplement.
He presented details of the research yesterday at the British Science Festival at Aberdeen University.
A successful pilot trial would be followed by a much larger study of 1500 pregnancies.
The soups are being produced in collaboration with Scottish food company Baxters.
Mr Devereux insisted the company was not acting out of purely selfish motives.
"There may be a commercial advantage, but equally it could fall flat on its face," he said. "They are aware of the risk."
In the UK, 10% to 15% of children and 5% to 10% of adults have been diagnosed with asthma.