Apr 032012

phytochemical phytonutrients

Phytochemicals—what are they?

Phytochemicals, or phytonutrients, are chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants (phyto means “plant” in Greek), and are responsible for color and other properties, such as the deep purple of blueberries, and the smell of garlic.

Scientists estimate that there may be as many as 10,000 different phytochemicals having the potential to affect diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Plus, these nutrients have everything to do with healthy aging.

While it is a well-known fact that most people do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, a new report shows the color of fruits and veggies eaten can be as important as the quantity. Eight in 10 Americans are missing out on the health benefits of a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, resulting in a phytonutrient gap with potential health consequences, according to America’s Phytonutrient Report.

phytonutrients phytochemicals fruit vegetableSome of the most common Phytonutrients include:

  • Carotenoids–Carotenoids are usually fat-soluble pigments that provide the red-orange-yellow color to fruits, veggies, egg yolks, wild salmon, steelhead trout, shellfish (e.g., shrimp as well as lobsters).  The carotenoid group of anti-oxidants performs an important function in cellular growth and repair.
  •  Flavonoids— Flavonoids are widely disbursed throughout plants and are what give the flowers and fruits of many plants their vibrant colors. More importantly, the consumption of foods containing flavonoids has been linked to numerous health benefits.  By biologically triggering the production of natural enzymes that fight disease, these powerful chemicals reduce the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and age-related degenerative diseases.
  • Indoles— Indoles are found in broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, kale, Brussel sprouts, and turnips (also known as “cruciferous” vegetables). They contain sulfur and activate agents that destroy cancer-causing chemicals.
  • Lignans– Lignans are actually antioxidants and phytoestrogens found in a variety of plants, which includes flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, rye, soybeans,  and some berries. These potent antioxidants work throughout our bodies to scavenge free radicals, which can damage tissue and are thought to play a role in the pathology of many diseases.
  • Lutein— Lutein is found in leafy green vegetables. It may prevent macular degeneration and cataracts as well as reduce the risk of heart disease and breast cancer.
  • Lycopene—Lycopene is a carotenoid, but well worth mentioning. Tomatoes and tomato products are the best known dietary sources.  When it comes to preventing cancer, the evidence in the area of prostate cancer prevention and eating lycopene rich foods is well documented.

Hundreds of other phytonutrients have been discovered, usually related to the color of fruits and vegetables — green, yellow-orange, red, blue-purple, and white. This leads to the recommendation that you should eat fruits and vegetables of varied color each day.

Use our handy chart below to get your daily dose of colors!

Broccoli Yellow bell Pepper Blueberries Reduced fat cheese Cherry tomatoes
Spinach Apricots Red Grapes Jicama Red kidney beans
Green Beans Carrots Eggplant Cauliflower Red bell pepper
Watercress Mango Dried Figs Tofu/lean protein Red onion
Mixed Greens Pineapple Raisins Mushrooms Radicchio

Although certain phytochemicals are available as dietary supplements, scientists speculate that  the potential health benefits of phytochemicals results from the consumption of whole foods—specifically plant foods.

Looking at all these colorful plant foods makes me think of making a huge pasta or green salad.  Try to use two ingredients in each color, dress with your favorite vinegar and olive oil, and it will be a recipe to keep you healthy year round.

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