Phytonutrients


Variety of vegetables
Diversity in color and goodness

Likely, you’ve read something about proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals and how these nutrients support your nutritional status. There is, however, another broad category of nutrients scientists recently have begun to study. For the most part, these nutrients simply have been called phytochemicals. “Phyto” means “plant”, so phytochemicals simply means “plant-based chemicals.” Because we know that phytochemicals have considerable nutritional value, we now refer to them as PHYTONUTRIENTS.

Scientists know that many thousands of phytonutrients are spread across the immense variety and diversity of the plant kingdom. Nevertheless, scientists and lay people alike have applied more attention and research to vitamins and minerals, pretty well ignoring phytonutrients—until recently.

Cherry tomatoes
Cherry tomatoes

It’s a bit paradoxical, then, that phytonutrients have been quite evident to you—even if you weren’t aware of them. Have you ever appreciated the shiny red of a tomato, the deep blue of a blueberry, the rich purple of a grape, or the vibrant green of a parsley sprig? Perhaps you’ve salivated at the alluring scent of banana or pineapple or lemon—or popcorn. Or maybe you’ve associated autumn with the tart flavor of apples, Christmas with the tang of cranberry sauce, or a favorite drink with the subtle taste of lime. If you’ve noticed such colors, scents, and flavors, you’ve taken note of the wonderful world of phytonutrients .

But Mother Nature is not just beautiful, scented, and tasty; it turns out she’s pretty smart, too. You see, phytonutrients are plants’ main defenses against disease, insects, bacteria, viruses, and environmental stressors such as ultra-violet light, cold, heat, and pollution. In fact, scientists know that each plant type has “learned” to produce specific phytonutrients for particular defensive needs.

Research now shows that people who eat phytonutrients can be protected in much the same way that plants are protected (Integr Cancer Ther 2004; 3; 333). In this regard, lay people may be ahead of science. Over time and through experiment, humans (as well as animals and insects) have learned to select foods on the basis of color, scent, and flavor. It seems lay people have known intuitively what experts have just begun to work out scientifically: the best nutrition tends to reside in those plants that appeal to sight, smell, and taste.

Pieces of fruit and vegetables
Pieces of fruit and vegetables

Unfortunately, many people also are attracted to packaged foods and junk foods, too often because of their sweet or salty taste or seductive packaging. But think about it: A freshly picked, ripe strawberry from a certified organic grower doesn’t need added sugar to make it sweet. A bright orange or red or yellow or purple carrot (yes, carrots do come in all those colors) pulled fresh from nutrient-dense soil doesn’t need artificial coloring to make it attractive or salt or chemical flavorings to make it delicious.

Pick that strawberry before it’s ripe, however, or grow that carrot in depleted soil and ship it hundreds of miles, and the plant that ends up on your dinner plate won’t be the same as the plant you would pick in a local farmer’s certified organic garden. And the phytochemical value won’t be the same, either. Phytochemicals can be destroyed or diminished at any stage: cultivation, harvesting, storing, shipping, processing, or cooking. The result is loss of color, scent, and flavor—some of the qualities attributed to phytonutrients. The greater loss, however, is the nutrient loss associated with those qualities.

Bottom line? Make sure your breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are feasts of the diverse colours of whole plants. If you really want to get in control of the nutrient treasures in food, read Chapter 12 of EAT TO SAVE YOUR LIFE

Freaky Fact

In the United States, as well as in most industrialized countries, cardiovascular disease and cancer are ranked as the top two leading causes of death. The causes of both diseases have been linked to lifestyle choices, and one of the most important is diet. It has been estimated that a healthy diet that includes 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day could prevent approximately 30% of all cancers.

Willett W: Diet, nutrition, and avoidable cancer.  Environ Health Perspect 1995, 103:165-170. PubMed Abstract

Related Supplements

A fruit and vegetable complex containing only the phytonutrients, equivalent to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day may be helpful for people who don't eat enough fruits and vegetables.

Eat to Save Your Life BookEat to Save Your Life answers the hard nutrition questions.

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