According to an article published by the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA,
“…cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's disease may plague the middle-aged and elderly because of our limited knowledge of phytonutrients. Research in this arena, now less than two decades old, may relegate some of today's ills to the history books—joining scurvy and pellagra.”
Phytochemicals are chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants ("phyto" refers to the Greek word for plant). Some are responsible for color and other organoleptic properties, such as the deep blue/purple of blueberries or the wonderful aroma of garlic. Phytochemicals often have biological significance to us but are not established as "essential nutrients" by the U.S. Government or by food/medical industries.
Modern doctors, scientists and researchers have discovered that this truly essential group of nutrients offer incredible health benefits.
Phytochemicals are readily found in plants such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, herbs, nuts, beans and spices. These compounds serve various functions in the plants, helping to protect the plant's vitality. For example, some phytochemicals protect the plant from UV radiation, some help the plant resist disease, others are useful in dissuading animals from using the plant as a buffet while still others protect the plant from insect attack.
There have been literally thousands of phytonutrients isolated, and each of them has specific nutritional properties and health benefits. They may be flavonoids, isoflavones, aromatics, carotenoids – nearly all are antioxidants, and most contribute to our health through complementing a good diet. Best of all, these phytochemicals produced by the plants solely for their own protection, can greatly aid us when we consume the plants! That's because they have health-promoting properties.
Just some examples:
This group of phytonutrients are the pigments found in bright yellow, orange and red plants, and include the more familiar names beta carotene, lutein and lycopene. All have antioxidant properties, and most have been shown to protect specific types of tissue or cells from damage from free radicals, thus fighting and preventing cancer.
A sub-group of terpenes, the same group that contains carotenoids, limonoids occur most often in citrus fruit peels, and seem to be specific to protecting lung tissue, again fighting and preventing cancers.
Found in abundance in the seeds of green and yellow vegetables such as squash or pumpkin, phytosterols block the uptake of cholesterol in the intestines, helping to keep LDL (the bad) cholesterol, at lower levels.
Phenols are the pigments that give blueberries, grapes, and other ‘blue’ and 'purple' fruits their color. They have been studied for decades for their disease preventative properties.
There are well over 1500 flavonoids found in a wide variety of plants and herbs. Because there are so many, from so many different sources, it’s impossible to list all of the bodily functions that they affect. Their biologic activity includes action against allergies, inflammation, free radicals, platelet aggregation, microbes, ulcers, viruses and tumors.
Isoflavones are a phytonutrient subclass found in beans and legumes. They deserve special mention because they appear to the block and even reduce tumor growth.
We have known for some time that plant-based foods are extremely beneficial to consume, and phytonutrients, it turns out are a big part of the reason why. Some phytonutrients help our cells communicate better with each other, others help prevent mutations at a cellular level, some are anti-inflammatory, others are potent antioxidants and many have functions we are only beginning to understand. What we do know is that they help prevent cancer, heart disease and most chronic diseases. Put in terms we can all appreciate...
"Phytonutrients are anti-aging, immune system boosting, good health promoting bits of plant kingdom wonderfulness available to us at every meal!"
More on this important tpoic will soon follow!