Considering that functional components of plant foods are mainly secondary-metabolism products, we investigated the shaping of health-promoting compounds in hydroponically grown butterhead lettuce (Lactuca sativa L. var. capitata) as a function of the strength of the nutrient solution utilized. To this aim, untargeted metabolomics profiling, in vitro antioxidant capacity (total phenolics, 2,2-diphenyl-1-picrylhydrazyl (DPPH), 2,20-azino-bis(3-ethylbenzothiazoline-6-sulphonic acid) (ABTS), cupric reducing antioxidant capacity (CUPRAC), and ferric reducing antioxidant power (FRAP) assays), and the inhibition of selected enzyme activities were investigated in two butterhead lettuce cultivars with different pigmentation, i.e., green and red Salanova. Full-strength nutrition, together with half- and quarter-strength solutions of macronutrients, was tested. Our results indicate that by reducing the nutrients strength, we could elicit a distinctive shaping of the phenolic profile of lettuce. It is noteworthy that only specific classes of phenolics (namely, lignans and phenolic acids, followed by flavones and anthocyanins) were modulated by the induction of nutritional eustress (fold-change values in the range between −5 and +11). This indicates that specific responses, rather than a generalized induction of phenolic compounds, could be observed. Nonetheless, a genotype-dependent response could be observed, with the red cultivar being much more responsive to nutritional deprivation than the green Salanova lettuce. Indeed, analysis of variance (ANOVA) confirmed a genotype x nutrition interaction in red Salanova (p < 0.001). As a consequence of the changes in phenolic composition, also the antioxidant capacity (p < 0.001) and amylase inhibition (p < 0.001) properties were affected by the growing conditions. However, the effect on cholinesterase and tyrosinase inhibition was poorly affected by the nutritional strength. Provided that yields are not compromised, the application of a controlled nutritional eustress in hydroponically cultivated lettuce may represent a valuable strategy to produce food with tailored functional features in a sustainable manner.
- Lactuca sativa