Phytochemicals

Scientists are discovering that many degenerative diseases, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and eye diseases, are not inevitable. It is now an accepted fact that many diseases are the consequence of the way we live and what we eat. One of the biggest discoveries is that colorful fruit and vegetables contain many disease-fighting compounds known as phytochemicals. James A. Joseph, PhD, as leading scientist at Tufts University’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, states that we need the protective benefits of the full spectrum of brightly colored foods. Dr. Joseph is one of the main researchers involved in the groundbreaking animal study research at Tufts University using blueberry extracts to reverse motor function deterioration with aging in rats.

According to Dr. Joseph, co-author of the newly published book The Color Code, eating nine to ten servings of vibrantly colored produce each day is optimal for degenerative disease protection (one serving equals either half a cup of chopped vegetables or fruits or one cup berries or chopped greens). A rainbow approach to eating (green, yellow-orange, red, blue-purple colored fruits and vegetables) provides a broad range of these health-promoting phytochemicals. Multi-colored green drinks containing a variety of superfoods may help those individuals who find it a challenge to eat nine or more servings of fruits and veggies per day, yet still want to enjoy the benefits the plant kingdom has to offer.

Phytochemicals – Nutrients of the Future

The word phytochemical (phyton is the Greek word for plant) refers to a wide range of naturally occurring chemicals that give flavor, color, texture, and odor to plants. In fact, the more intensely colored and more flavorful and scent-filled the plant, the more concentrated the phytochemical content.

The category of phytochemicals refers to such things as vitamins, minerals, proteins and carbohydrates, as well as hundreds and maybe thousands of other health-providing plant substances that currently are not considered essential nutrients. Our primary source of phytochemicals is vegetables (including seaweed and algae), fruits (especially berries), cereal grasses, and sprouts. However, many legumes (soybeans), whole grains, nuts, seeds (flaxseeds), herbs (thyme, oregano), and spices (turmeric, ginger) provide impressive amounts of phytochemicals.

Why do Plants Product Phytochemicals?

Plants manufacture phytochemicals for their own healthy growth and to protect themselves from a number of dangerous invading microbes such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Some microbe-destroying phytochemicals furnish the plant with the equivalent of an immune system. The best known is a substance found in the skins of grapes called resveratrol, which fights off bacteria and fungal infections.

Certain phytochemicals, such as pungent organosulfur compounds in onions and garlic, provide pest control or serve as an insect repellent, while other, more fragrant phytochemicals help attract pollinating insects. Free-radical damage from the sun, and even photosynthesis, the plant’s own energy producing process, can also threaten the plant’s survival. For example, the green pigment chlorophyll would be rapidly destroyed and the plant would die if it weren’t for the powerful yellow-orange antioxidant pigments that continually provide protection.

Common Phytochemicals Found in Foods

Phytochemicals Foods or Superfoods Therapeutic Effect
Organosulfur compounds Garlic, onions, chives, leeks Anti-CVD, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal
Anthocyanins, flavonols Berries, grape seeds & skin Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer
Carotenoids Dark green, yellow, orange, & red vegetables & fruits, spirulina, wheat, barley grass Anti-cancer, antioxidant, protective in hear & eye disease
Isoflavonoids Soybeans, red clover Anti-cancer, reduces menopausal symptoms
Polyphenols Green tea, cranberries Protects GI track and urinary track, anti-cancer, anti-CVD

How do Phytochemicals Help the Human Body?

Hundreds of phytochemicals are currently being studied for their human health benefits. To better understand the scope of these studies, it might be helpful to know that carrots contain 217, orange juice contains 170 and apples contain 150 phytochemicals in their disease-fighting makeup. Scientific research is helping us to understand how, and why, the phytochemicals found in color-laden produce, herbs, and superfoods have such positive effects on health.

There are literally thousands of different phytochemicals found throughout the plant kingdom. These phytochemicals are proving to exhibit a wide range of biological activities, arising mainly from their antioxidant properties, anti-inflammatory strengths, and ability to boost the body’s natural detoxification systems. They have been recognized to exert anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-cardiovascular disease, and anti-cancer activity as well as analgesic, anti-allergic, liver protective, estrogenic, and anti-estrogenic effects. Phytochemicals often work synergistically with one another, producing their health-giving properties only when two or more are present.

Dr. James Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy and compiler of the USDA phytochemical database (see reference) states, “Cancer, in many cases, is a deficiency of antioxidants. So is heart disease. Scientists are starting to think of these diseases as a shortage of phytochemicals.