Phytochemicals are chemicals produced by plants. Also known as phytonutrients, many of these plant compounds have health benefits that science has only recently begun to study. Certain phytochemicals may eventually prove to be just as essential as vitamin C or calcium.
Phytochemicals fall into several types, mainly:
- Polyphenols (flavonoids)
- Phenolic acids
- Hydroxycinnamic acids
- Tyrosol esters
- Carotenoids (tetraterpenoids)
- Dithiolthiones (isothiocyanates)
- Thiosulphonates (allium compounds)
- Oxalic acid
- Phytic acid (inositol hexaphosphate)
- Tartaric acid
Of this list, only the polyphenols and the carotenoids have been widely studied. Some of the flavonoids appear to act in a manner similar to the female hormone estrogen. Estrogen-like substances from soybeans, soy products, garbanzo beans, chickpeas, licorice, and other plant sources are called phytoestrogens. These phytoestrogens are significantly weaker than human estrogen, but can be beneficial through and after menopause.
Carotenoids from carrots, yams, cantaloupe, squash, and apricots appear to protect cells. Xanthophylls, also classified as carotenoids, include lutein and zeaxanthin, and are found in spinach, kale, and turnip greens. Research indicates these may promote eye health. Lycopene is another carotenoid found in tomatoes, strawberries and other foods with red pigment. Research indicates it supports a healthy prostate and youthful skin.
Phytochemicals and Chronic Health Conditions
More than 60 flavonoids in citrus, exhibit extraordinary benefits for the body’s own detoxification systems. Phytochemicals may also help promote healthy cholesterol levels, help support cardiovascular health, help lower the incidence of age-related macular degeneration, discourage atherosclerosis, nourish immune functions, and help support healthy blood sugar and blood pressure levels.
How do I know what Phytochemicals I need?
Unfortunately, today no one can answer that question. Institutions such as the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) acknowledge that a diet high in healthy plant foods that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, provides the widest variety of phytochemicals for your body to use.
We also know that it’s practically impossible to overdose on any phytochemical if you are getting it through the original food source, and that—barring allergies—food doesn’t cause side effects. Unfortunately, chemically processed phytochemical supplements can cause side effects. Research to date does not support the idea that phytochemical supplements are as beneficial as eating the whole fruits, vegetables, and grains from which they are extracted.
In a survey of American eating habits, only 1 in 11 Americans ate at least three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit daily. One in every nine surveyed ate no fruit or vegetable on the day of the survey at all! And two out of every three Americans surveyed thought that two or fewer servings of fruits and vegetables a day was sufficient for good health.
Find plants rich in phytochemicals under Healthy Plant Foods.