What are phytochemicals?

Phyto comes from the Greek word for plant. Phytochemicals (or phytonutrients) are natural chemicals found in plants that protect and prevent disease. They are powerful yet considered non-nutritive which means they are not required by the human body to sustain life. It is well-known that plants produce these chemicals to protect themselves, but we are beginning to understand that they can also protect humans against disease to keep the human body working properly.

Damage to healthy cells can be caused by the air we breath, the food we eat and stress. When we consume phytochemicals, it triggers a group of enzymes to fight off free radicals before they damage the body. Research has shown that phytochemicals can stop the formation of potentially disease-causing substances from attacking cells and protecting cells to assist and prevent other chronic diseases and illnesses, such as: cancer, tumours, immune function, bacterial infection, viral infection, diabetes, bone health, neurological health, cardiac health, etc. Phytochemicals also benefit the body’s functioning overall.

There are over 1000 known phytochemicals and it is estimated up to 4000! Only a small fraction of phytochemicals have been studied closely. Some phytonutrients include:

  1. Carotenoids (Beta-Carotene)
    • Helps the immune system, vision, skin & bone health
    • Orange, red & yellow colours in fruits and vegetables: pumpkins, carrots, sweet red peppers
  2. Lycopene
    • Lowers prostate cancer, reduces heart disease
    • Gives pink and red colour in tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit
  3. Lutein
    • Known to protect eye health specifically for macular degeneration
    • Provide green colour: spinach, kale, collards
  4. Anthocyanin
    • For blood vessel health
    • Red and purple berries: blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, cranberries, raspberries
  5. Flavanoids
    • Some reduce risk of certain types of cancer, reduce inflammation to prevent chronic disease, reduce asthma, reduce coronary heart disease
    • Found in green tea, apples, berries, kale, onions
  6. Resveratrol
    • Acts as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, assists heart & lung health
    • Found in grapes, purple grape juice, red wine, peanuts
  7. Glucosinolates
    • Fights against cancer and found in cruciferous vegetables.
    • Brussel sprouts, cabbage, kale, broccoli
  8. Phytoestrogens
    • Isoflavones are found in soy and may regulate estrogen
    • May lower risk of bone loss and endometrial cancer
    • Found in flax seed, chia seed and sesame seed

Phytochemicals are already part of our daily diet. If you eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruit in many different colours, you will be sure to get many different phytochemicals. Be sure also to include herbs, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes and soy products for a well-rounded diet. Fruits and vegetables are also rich in minerals, vitamins and fibre and low in saturated fat.

The benefits of phytochemicals are not destroyed by chopping or blending. In fact some are more easily absorbed such as lycopene from tomatoes if it is made into tomato sauce. A great way to get the benefits from the phytochemicals found in fruit and vegetables is to blend them into a fruit smoothie. Also try adding some seeds and nuts to a salad.

What are your favourite veggies?

Let me know in the comments section below…

Try some of my veggie-based recipes.



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