Natural Health Journals

What Are Phytochemicals and What Do They Do?


“Phytochemical” is a word we’ve only been hearing for a few years; but the importance of phytochemicals to our health has been known in some cultures for thousands of years.

“Phyto” is Greek for plant; phytochemicals, also called phytonutrients, are natural chemicals that plants make, which serve many different functions for plant life. They can help keep plants from getting diseases from germs or fungi; they can repel pests or grazing animals; they can supply a plant food with its color (like lycopene in red tomatoes or the beta carotene that makes carrots orange), its aroma (like allicin in garlic) or its taste (like the menthol and other phytonutrients that give mint leaves their minty taste).

Phytochemicals usually have antioxidant properties — that is, they help prevent and fight cell damage — but one category of them is specifically known as antioxidants; they include vitamins A, B, C and E (though some health experts choose to exclude plant vitamins from the list of categories of phytochemicals). Antioxidants help our cells stay healthy by participating in scores of normal and necessary metabolic reactions, and by preventing the formation of disease-causing free radicals, as well as diffusing the power of free radicals on cells. Free radicals are atoms or molecules with unpaired electrons, which makes them highly “reactive” — they readily steal electrons from surrounding molecules, thereby disrupting healthy cellular activity and causing cellular oxidative damage.

Some phytochemicals are not compounds but single elements, as in the case of selenium, abundant in nuts, seeds, grains, mushrooms and onions. Selenium is a key player in major metabolic systems, including thyroid and immune function.

Plant fiber is also considered a phytochemical; though fibers have no nutrition, they are every bit as valuable as nutrients are to an organism, as they help to bulk up and pass digested foods through the intestines, thus helping to eliminate waste (this helps prevent colorectal cancers). Dietary fiber also slows down absorption of sugars into the blood, which is helpful for people with diabetic or pre-diabetic conditions.

Where Are Phytochemicals Found?

They are found in fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans and peas), grains and other plants (like grass). There are thousands of known phytochemicals — some sources say as many as 25,000! One single fruit or vegetable may have dozens or even a hundred different phytochemicals! A carrot has 100, orange juice has 59 and broccoli has around 40. There is good reason why Americans have been told for many years to eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day!

As we know, whole grains, also bursting with phytonutrients, are another important part of a healthy diet; federal guidelines recommend several servings of whole grains a day.

How to Maximize Your Phytochemical Intake

You want to eat fruits and vegetables in their fresh, whole state as much as possible. Eat fruits that are neither under- nor over-ripened. If you cook your fresh vegetables, steam them in a tiny amount of water over low heat (lower heat once water comes to a boil), to preserve the most nutritional value. Exceptions to this would be vegetables like collard or mustard greens and beans; these are very rich in phytonutrients, and require hours of boiling to cook and release the nutrients. Make sure you drink the soup left behind in the pot, as it will be rich in nutrients!

If canned fruits and vegetables are all you have available, by all means eat them; but as a general rule, avoid canned fruits or vegetables, as some of their antioxidant power is lost in the canning and storage.

Frozen fruits and vegetables are good, and they’re a great way to eat your favorite ones when they’re out of season; you can also stock up and keep them fresh in your freezer when they’re on sale. If you insure that they’re well-wrapped (for instance, storing them in Ziploc bags and letting the air out of the bags), they can keep in the freezer for a number of months.

Regarding whole grains, you want to buy minimally processed grains. Instead of using white, bleached flour, use whole-wheat, unbleached. Instead of sugary, over-processed kids’ cereals or even Cheerios, opt for chemical-free, whole-grain cereals like Total, Raisin Bran or oatmeal (add your own chopped fresh or dried fruits and nuts, to make them more interesting and nutritious, yet).

Whenever possible, buy organic products, as you will avoid a lot of the toxic pesticide and herbicide residues. This is especially the case with plant foods that have edible peels (such as tomatoes, apples, peaches or blueberries), and those that grow under or just above ground (such as radishes, potatoes and strawberries).

Also, avoid chemical preservatives and other artificial ingredients in the other foods you consume, so that the natural products you eat can be best absorbed and used by the body.

What Diseases Can Phytochemicals Help Prevent?

The latest medical research shows that a diet high in fruits, vegetables and grains, and low in fats, is associated with lower risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and high blood pressure — all four of these are at or near the top of the most common deadly diseases in the United States.

Besides helping to neutralize the power of free radicals, phytochemicals are thought to discourage cholesterol plaques from forming on arterial walls, helping to boost blood circulation and avoid circulatory problems, including heart disease and stroke.

Some phytochemicals, known as phytoestrogens (abundant in soybeans, whole grains, berries and sesame seeds), are also known to regulate estrogen hormones in women and have been associated with reduced risk of some breast and uterine cancers, and osteoporosis … imagine eating your way to hormonal balance, and not having to get hormone-replacement therapy as you get older!

Phytochemical Supplements

Supplements are sold on the market, containing high amounts of specific phytonutrients; however, the consensus among experts is that it’s healthier for you to eat the actual foods that have the phytochemicals, instead of taking the phytochemicals alone. The beneficial effect of eating lots of fruits, vegetables and grains comes from all of the nutrients in each food, including the minerals and fiber, which won’t be included in phytonutrient supplements. Rather than focusing on one or a few specific phytonutrients, you want to eat a diet with a lot of different, whole plant foods. Doctors point out that taking isolated phytonutrients by themselves could react with other medicines or herbs you take, or could prove toxic in and of itself.

By Jamell Andrews

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