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Ferulic acid is a natural chemical that is found in the cell walls of plants. It is one of a number of natural plant chemicals, called phytochemicals, which are found in a wide variety of plant species. The official name for this chemical is 4-hydroxy-3-methoxycinnamic acid, and its molecular formula is C10H10O4. The chemical is synthesized within plant cells by an enzyme called o-methyl transferase, which uses caffeic acid, a phytochemical that in spite of its name is not related to caffeine, to produce ferulic acid.
Ferulic acid structure is based around a benzene ring and, like many phytochemicals, it acts as an antioxidant by absorbing free radicals from the surrounding environment. As an antioxidant it may, therefore, act as an anti-cancer agent. It is often used as an ingredient in various supplements that claim to slow down the aging process. Such supplements sometimes go by the name of ferulic acid serum. Other health benefits that have been attributed to this substance include reduction of cholesterol in the blood, protection against the degeneration of bone, stabilization of levels of blood glucose in diabetic patients, and the relief of "hot flushing" symptoms experienced by menopausal women.
In its native form in the cell walls of plants, ferulic acid works in conjunction with another phytochemical called dihydroferulic acid to form part of a compound called lignocellulose, an important structural substance in plant cells that provides strength to the cell wall. This substance is particularly common in the seeds and leaves of cereal plants, including wheat, rice, maize, and oats. Other sources include fruits such as pineapples, apples, and oranges.
Ferulic acid solubility relies on an alkaline environment, and the chemical can be extracted from various plants with the use of a strong alkaline solution. Ferulic acid esterase, an enzyme that can be harvested from certain bacteria and fungi, is sometimes used to aid the extraction process. When extracted and purified, the substance takes the form of a yellow-colored powder.
The uses of this chemical, aside from applications in the field of health and alternative medicine, include the manufacture of an artificial form of vanilla flavoring. It is also sometimes used by scientists when studying the structure of certain protein molecules by mass spectrometry. A ferulic acid solution can be used to suspend protein molecules, whose structure may then be analyzed using laser technology.