Phytonutrients are naturally occurring chemicals found in plants that have health benefits. Many of these benefits are similar to medicine, and much of the research into phytochemicals validates natural remedies and ancient medicines.
Researchers presently estimate that there are 30,000 to 50,000 of these phytochemicals (phytonutrients), although scientists have only isolated ~1,000 so far. Of these, a mere 100 have been analyzed and tested. Some of the well-known phytochemicals are lycopene in tomatoes, isoflavones in soy and flavonoids in fruits.
Phytochemical (Phytonutrient) Health Benefits
For many years, researchers have recognized that diets high in fruits, vegetables, herbs, grains, seeds, nuts and legumes prevent diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure. They once believed that it was the vitamin, mineral, fiber and enzyme contents of these plant-derived foods that were preventing malnutrition and disease.
However, in the 1990s, phytochemicals (phytonutrients) compounds were discovered, and modern science began acknowledging disease-protective elements of phytochemicals (phytonutrients). It is now believe that phytochemicals (phytonutrients) can protect the our 100 trillion cells, tissues, membranes, mitochondria, bloodstream, skin, organs and immune functions from the onslaught of synthetic chemicals, toxins, bacteria, pesticides, viruses, fungi, yeast, microbes, mutagens, food additives, pollution, free radicals, aging and the onslaught of many degenerative diseases. Scientists continue to research to benefits and effects of phytochemicals, and they are one of the leading nutritional research topics.
How Phytochemicals Work
There are many phytochemicals, and each works differently. These are some possible actions:
- Antioxidant actions – Most phytochemicals have antioxidant activity and protect our cells against oxidative damage and reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Phytochemicals with antioxidant activity: allyl sulfides (onions, leeks, garlic), carotenoids (fruits, carrots), flavonoids (fruits, vegetables), polyphenols (tea, grapes).
- Anti-bacterial action – The phytochemical allicin from garlic has anti-bacterial properties.
- Hormonal action – Isoflavones, found in soy, imitate human estrogens and help to reduce menopausal symptoms and osteoporosis.
- Interference with DNA replication – Saponins found in beans interfere with the replication of cell DNA, thereby preventing the multiplication of cancer cells. Capsaicin, found in hot peppers, protects DNA from carcinogens.
- Stimulation of enzymes – Indoles, which are found in cabbages, stimulate enzymes that make the estrogen less effective and could reduce breast cancer risk. Other phytochemicals, which interfere with enzymes, are protease inhibitors (soy and beans), terpenes (citrus fruits and cherries).
- Physical action – Some phytochemicals bind physically to cell walls thereby preventing the adhesion of pathogens to human cell walls. Proanthocyanidins are responsible for the anti-adhesion properties of cranberry. Consumption of cranberries will reduce the risk of urinary tract infections and will improve dental health.
Phytochemicals (Phytonutrients) Sources
Some of the most well-known phytochemicals (phytonutrients) are lycopene in tomatoes, isoflavones in soy and flavonoids in fruits. Other sources of phytochemicals (phytonutrients) include:
- bee pollen
- dark colored berries (e.g., bilberry, blackberry, blueberry, cherry, cranberry, elderberry, hawthorn, loganberry and raspberry, and strawberry, etc.)
- dark plums
- pink grapefruit
- purple grapes
- red grapes
- red oranges
- Collard greens
- Red Beets
- Red peppers
- Non-GMO (non-genetically engineered) soy sprouts
- Non-GMO fermented soy (miso, natto, tempeh)
- Sweet potatoes
- Turnip greens
Nuts, seeds, and grains
- Raw nuts (e.g., peanuts)
- Raw seeds (flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.)
- Whole grains (e.g., wheat, flax, rice bran)
- Black pepper
- Ginkgo biloba
- Grape Seed
- Grape skin
- Green tea
- Milk thistle
List of Phytochemicals (Phytonutrients)
- Ellagic acid
- Gallic acid
- Rosmarinic acid
- Tannic acid
- Ursolic acid
- Phytic acid