Phytochemicals are plant compounds that contain numerous health benefits ranging from cancer prevention and reduction to decreased systemic inflammation. Phytochemicals also seem to have a protectant effect on DNA from cellular damage, making them vital to health and wellness.
These powerhouse chemicals are found mainly in the pigmentations of plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Phytochemicals give grapes their deep purple or green hues, and apples the crimson red. These compounds are found in both the skin and the flesh of fruits and vegetables.
Phytochemicals seem to work in tandem with the enzymes and fiber in whole foods. This blend of fibrous materials, paired with enzymes, fuels the breakdown of nutrients, allowing for the body’s ability to better assimilate, utilize nutrients, and eliminate harmful substances.
There are several types of phytochemicals, all of which provide unique health contributions-
Carotenoids- Beta carotene, lycopene, zeaxanthin, and lutein are subtypes of carotenoids. These types of phytochemicals are found in orange fruits and vegetables such as oranges, sweet potatoes, carrots, and broccoli. Carotenoids stop cell cancer proliferation, increase immunity, promote healthy vision, and support skin health.
Flavonoids- Catechins, quercetin, and anthocyanins make up the flavonoid family. Foods that make up this class of phytochemicals include apples, onions, citrus fruits, coffee, and tea. Health benefits include increased immunity, reduced inflammation, and inhibited tumor growth.
Indoles and glucosinolates- are found in brassica vegetables such as broccoli, kale, and brussels sprouts. They exhibit inhibitory effects on tumor cells as well as reduce the amount of cancer-causing hormones.
Inositol- is a phytic acid found in corn, oats, wheat, rye, and rice and helps prevent damage to cells.
Isoflavones- are found in soy products and contain cancer-fighting properties.
Polyphenols- Resveratrol and ellagic acid make up polyphenols. They are found in grapes, green tea, wine, apples, whole grains, and peanuts.
Consuming foods high in phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals can help reduce the chances of developing many chronic illnesses that wreak havoc on our health care system. One example is heart disease which is the leading cause of mortality in the US in 2020. More people have died of heart disease than Covid 19 during the 2020 pandemic by a difference of 347,221) (USA Facts, 2021). Other conditions include type 2 diabetes mellitus, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
It is important to note that no studies indicate the efficacy or safety of consuming phytochemicals in supplement form. It is always best to choose whole food forms to support your nutritional goals. These come packed with an assortment of phytochemicals, minerals, vitamins, and fiber making them much more than an isolated nutrient.
Increasing the consumption of plant foods improves our chances of warding off chronic illness. Simultaneously, feeding our cells the correct information can maintain homeostatic factors for long-term health outcomes.
MD Anderson Cancer Center. (2017). Phytochemicals and cancer: What you should know. Retrieved from https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/phytochemicals-and-cancer-what-you-should-know.h10-1591413.html
Breastcancer.org. (2013). Foods Containing Phytochemicals. Retrieved from https://www.breastcancer.org/tips/nutrition/reduce_risk/foods/phytochem
USA Facts. (2021). Top causes of death in the United States: Heart disease, cancer and COVID-19. Retrieved from https://usafacts.org/articles/top-causes-death-united-states-heart-disease-cancer-and-covid-19/