Phytochemicals: The plants have it!

If you follow nutrition news, you have probably been hearing a lot about phytonutrients, also called phytochemicals. The name gives you an indication about what these compounds are and their importance in a healthy diet.

"Phyto" means "plant" and phytonutrients are plant nutrients found in vegetables, fruits, grains, herbs and spices, that seem to have a beneficial effect on your ability to fight disease.

The presence of phytonutrients is indicated by the rich colors, flavors and aromas of plant foods. If you are eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and spices, you are probably consuming an abundance of these helpful compounds.

There are many thousands of these health promoting phytochemicals found in the foods you eat, but only a relatively few have been studied. The most common ones have been divided into the following categories:

Flavonoids - This is a large group of plant pigments that includes the flavones, flavonols and isoflavones. Research has shown that including foods with flavonoids will help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as some cancers.

Carotenoids - These are the pigments that give some plant foods their vibrant colors. Carrots and squash are orange because of a carotenoid called beta carotene. Other members of the carotenoid family that you may have heard of include lycopene and lutein.  Carotenoids have excellent antioxidant properties and seem to boost your immune system, while helping prevent cancer and heart disease. It is estimated that there are over 500 different carotenoids found in fruits, vegetables and spices.

Phytosterols - These plant sterols resemble the hormones that your body produces and seem to be important for fighting cancers in the reproductive systems of men and women, as well as helping prevent heart disease and osteoporosis. Flax seed is rich in phytosterols called lignans.

Polyphenols - A group of antioxidant compounds, such as curcumin found in the yellow spice, turmeric, and catechins found in green tea, that seem to protect against cancer and heart disease.

Organosulfur compounds - Sulfur compounds such as allicin, found in onions and garlic, that are known to be anti-bacterial and may boost your immune system to prevent and fight cancer. These phytonutrients can also be found in cruciferous vegetables.

Here is a chart showing some specific phytochemicals, where they are found and what they may do to help you to stay well.

Allicin Onions, Garlic, Leeks, ChivesMay reduce blood pressure; Antimicrobial effect that may help reduce ulcers
Anthocyanins Blueberries, Currants, Blackberries, Strawberries, RaspberriesAntioxidant; May protect against cancer and vision loss
Beta carotene Carrots, Winter Squash, Pumpkin, Apricots, Sweet Potatoes, Cantaloupe, Broccoli, SpinachAntioxidant for protection against heart disease, vision loss, memory loss, cancer, complicationsf from Type II diabetes
Capsaicin Chili Peppers, Cayenne PepperPromotes normal blood clotting for less risk of blood clots
Catechin Green Tea, Red GrapesMay protect against cancer and heart disease
Curcumin Turmeric, Curry Powder, Yellow Mustard, GingerAnti-inflammatory; may help prevent cancers by inhibiting carcinogens
Daidzein Soybeans, LegumesMay help prevent cancer and osteoporosis
Ellagic Acid Blueberries, Blackberries, Raspberries, Grapefruit, Walnuts, Pomegranates,Antioxidant tumor fighter
Genistein SoybeansPhytoestrogenic, May help inhibit cancer cells, protect against estrogen-fed cancers and osteoporosis
Lignans Flax seed, Whole Grains, Phytoestrogens; May protect against estrogen-sensitive cancers and heart disease
Lutein Spinach, Collard Greens, Zucchini, Red Grapes, Broccoli, Kiwi, CornProtects against vision loss and may help protect against cancer
Lycopene Cooked Tomato Products, Papaya, Watermelon, Pink GrapefruitMay help prevent against prostate, stomach and esophageal cancers, may help protect from vision loss
Phenolic Acids Coffee Beans, Oats, Potatoes, Apples, Blueberries, Oranges, Cherries, GrapesMay help rid body of carcinogens (cancer-causing agents)
Phytic Acid Whole grains, Soybeans, Wheat germMay protect against cancer and heart disease by preventing free-radical formation
Quercetin Tea, Citrus fruits, Buckwheat, Red OnionsAntibacterial; anti-inflammatory; may protect against allergies and cancer
Resveratrol Red Wine, Red Grapes, Peanuts, RaspberriesAnti-inflammatory, May protect against cancer by inhibiting cancer cell growth, may protect against heart disease
Sulforaphane Cabbage, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Bok Choy, Cauliflower, Kale, Onions, GingerMay protect against cancer and arthritis
Saponins Sprouts, Green vegetables, Tomatoes, PotatoesMay help protect against cancer by inhibiting cancer cells and stimulating the immune system
Tannins Whole Grains, Teas, Wine, Grapes, Lentils, Antioxidants; May help prevent cancer
ZeaxanthinGrapes, Kiwi, Spinach, Broccoli, Kale, Collard Greens, Egg Yolks, ZucchiniHelps protect vision

Protection from disease

When you examine a list of phytochemicals and their benefits, you will find that the word “protect” occurs quite frequently. This is because these plant nutrients seem to provide a protective effect from the diseases we dread the most, including heart disease, cancer, Type II diabetes and even osteoporosis and vision loss.

What about supplements?

As we all heard more and more about the scientific research showing the beneficial effects of phytochemicals, the number of supplements available for these compounds has skyrocketed. While there may be some benefits to taking a supplement form of these nutrients, it is generally a good idea to consume the whole food to receive the maximum benefit, some of which may be lost in the extraction and production process.

Of course, there may be certain situations where taking phytonutrient supplements is recommended, such as in the treatment of disease, but this is something you will need to discuss with your health care provider.

Let phytos help win the fight for you

If you look at the center column of the phytonutrient chart above, you will see a list of foods that are chock full of, not only phytochemicals, but with other nutrients as well, including fiber, vitamins and minerals.

You probably don't need to memorize the names and sources of all the phytochemicals. What you should take with you from this article is that when you eat a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables and whole grains and seeds, and include green tea and spices such as turmeric and ginger in your diet, you can significantly help protect your health.

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