What are phytonutrients and why do we need them?
All plant foods, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans, contain thousands of natural compounds that serve to protect them. They are known as phytochemicals or phytonutrients, and they may help to keep us functioning correctly as well as prevent many major diseases.
Plant meals include thousands of phytonutrients. They are classified into several classes, one of which is polyphenols, the most abundant type of antioxidant in fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants, which include vitamins A, C, and E, as well as selenium, zinc, copper, and manganese, are required to counteract free radicals, which are unstable molecules produced by oxygen in our bodies as well as bad lifestyles. Free radicals target DNA and then bind to healthy cells, destroying them, which can lead to heart disease and some malignancies.
One serving of fruit or vegetables may contain up to 100 phytonutrients, which play specialized protective functions for both minor and significant health issues. They are still another reason to choose plant-based meals, but they are also found in teas and red wine.
Some phytochemicals are known phytotoxins that are toxic to humans; for example, aristolochic acid is carcinogenic at low doses. Some phytochemicals are antinutrients that interfere with the absorption of nutrients. Others, such as some polyphenols and flavonoids, may be pro-oxidants in high ingested amounts.
Non-digestible dietary fibers from plant foods, often considered phytochemicals, are now generally regarded as a nutrient group with approved health claims for reducing the risk of some types of cancer and coronary heart disease.
There are thousands of different phytochemicals, and they can be grouped into various categories, including:
Flavonoids are a class of polyphenolic secondary metabolites found in plants, and thus commonly consumed in the diets of humans.
ROLE: These water-soluble chemicals are potent antioxidants that combat viruses, cancer, allergies, and inflammation. Anthocyanins, which are prominent flavonoids, contribute the purple, red, and blue hues to plants.
Food Sources of Flavonoids: Flavonoids are found in all fruits and vegetables, however some plants' flavonoids offer specific health benefits. Tea and red grapes may help lower cholesterol, while cranberries and blueberries can help fight urinary tract infections.
Carotenoids are yellow, orange, and red organic pigments that are produced by plants and algae, as well as several bacteria, archaea, and fungi. Carotenoids give the characteristic color to pumpkins, carrots, parsnips, corn, tomatoes, canaries, flamingos, salmon, lobster, shrimp, and daffodils.
ROLE: They are responsible for the yellow, orange, and red pigments found in fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids (such as lycopene and capsanthin, found in chilies and sweet peppers) are powerful antioxidants that may help prevent heart disease and various cancers, as well as enhance the immune system. Lutein helps to protect the eyes. The body converts orange-yellow beta-carotene to vitamin A.
Food Sources of Carotenoids: Any vegetable or fruit that is red, orange, yellow, or dark green.
A phytoestrogen is a plant-derived xenoestrogen not generated within the endocrine system, but consumed by eating plants or manufactured foods.
ROLE: Phytoestrogens, which are found primarily in soy, are similar to mammalian estrogen. Because soy is commonly consumed in the Far East, where incidence of breast cancer, osteoporosis, and other significant health concerns are lower than in the West, phytoestrogens are assumed to play a beneficial effect. According to research, huge amounts of soy may be harmful to our health, thus it's best to limit soy consumption as part of a balanced diet.
Ellagic acid is a polyphenol found in numerous fruits and vegetables. It is the dilactone of hexahydroxydiphenic acid.
ROLE: This polyphenol protects plants from infection and pests and has now been demonstrated to aid in the treatment of breast and skin cancer, as well as colon, prostate, pancreas, and esophageal cancer. It also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities and helps the body eliminate pollutants. Because cooking does not destroy it, it can be found in fruit preserves.
Glucosinolates are natural components of many pungent plants such as mustard, cabbage, and horseradish. The pungency of those plants is due to mustard oils produced from glucosinolates when the plant material is chewed, cut, or otherwise damaged. These natural chemicals most likely contribute to plant defence against pests and diseases, and impart a characteristic bitter flavor property to cruciferous vegetables.
ROLE: These phytonutrients, which are derived from glucose and contain sulfur, are found in practically all brassica plants. They have antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory activities, and are thought to protect against numerous malignancies. Instead of boiling, steam, stir-fry, or microwave brassicas to preserve them in your food.
Phytosterols are phytosteroids, similar to cholesterol, that serve as structural components of biological membranes of plants. They encompass plant sterols and stanols. More than 250 sterols and related compounds have been identified.
ROLE: Also known as saponins, phytosterols (plant stanols and sterols) are known to lower cholesterol levels as well as artery stiffening. They are also anti-inflammatory. Phytosterol supplements, on the other hand, are not indicated during pregnancy or breast-feeding, or for children under the age of five, because the developing brain need cholesterol.
ROLE: These sulfur-containing phytonutrients are found in all members of the allium family and are thought to increase the body's cancer-fighting enzymes. Mincing, slicing, or chopping onions, for example, and then allowing them to stand for 5-10 minutes before quick cooking, such as sautéing, increases their health-giving benefits because the phytonutrients are activated.
Phytochemicals are not only important for the health of plants but can also provide health benefits to humans when consumed as part of a balanced diet. They are associated with various health benefits, including reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Eating a diverse array of fruits and vegetables is a good way to incorporate a wide range of phytochemicals into your diet and promote overall health.