The word “phytochemical” (can also be called phytonutrient) sounds like a big and scary word. As if you should turn around and run in the opposite direction as fast as you can. Actually, it is one of the best things for you! So instead, be running towards it as quickly as you can!
What is a phytochemical? The term encompasses many compounds because the “phyto” portion means plant while the “chemical” part means exactly that. These chemicals that are naturally produced by plants can have very powerful effects within the human body. Some can be very bad, some can become very addictive, but many can be the most beneficial thing a body can have. Many of the beneficial ones have been shown to prevent different types of cancers and diseases. Interestingly enough, plants typically produce these wonderful chemicals as a defense to keep herbivores from eating the plant. It is quite ironic that these defensive compounds produced by plants are what keep us at our healthiest. Humans and the plants that they have co-existed with for thousands of years have created this sort of relationship. Early humans, through trial-and-error, learned which plants provide what kind of benefit to the body and which plants to avoid. Phytochemicals exist in different forms such as antioxidants (protects cells from oxidative damage and cancers), hormonal action (such as estrogen-like compounds found in soy), stimulation of enzymes (stimulating certain enzymes may help reduce the risk of breast cancer), interfere with DNA replication (which would prevent multiplication of cancer cells), anti-bacterial properties, and lastly, by preventing physical adhesion of pathogens to cells in our body.
Examples of Phytochemicals
There are many common examples of phytochemicals that you probably have heard of for many years and maybe did not realize they are phytochemicals. Antioxidants such as carotenoids are found in carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, and many more. Vitamins can be antioxidants as well such as vitamins A, C, and E. Soybeans contain a phytochemical, isoflavones, which acts like estrogen within the body. Garlic is known to have anti-bacterial and immune boosting strength due to the phytochemical allicin. And when someone advises you to drink cranberry juice to help alleviate or prevent a urinary tract infection, that is because the phytochemical within cranberries prevents bacteria from adhering to the walls of the bladder. This was a surprising scientific finding posted on webmd.com, that “three of the top five antioxidant-rich foods studied were beans”. Great news for vegetarians and even more reason to be a vegetarian.
Phytochemical supplements have been around ever since vitamins and minerals have been marketed. You must have recognized many of the examples listed above. But you may not be aware that these are also found in pill form in many health stores and drug stores. Aside from the commonly sold vitamins, minerals, or multi-vitamins, you can also easily find garlic, cranberry, açai berry, grape seed, among others. Since phytochemical is such a broad term, there are no supplements specifically marketed under that umbrella. Though nutrition supplements can potentially assist in providing your body with what it is lacking, it is highly recommended to find these nutrients from whole foods. The problem with a nutrition supplement is that it typically is structurally and chemically different from the nutrient occurring naturally in the food. Whole and raw foods offer the best nutrient value from plant-based food.
What to Eat More of to Derive Phytochemicals
Here is a list of foods with wonderful phytochemicals that are commonly found in most supermarkets. Look for these fruits and vegetables: tomatoes, garlic, broccoli, blueberries, blackberries, carrots, oranges, olives, sweet potatoes, and grapes. The ones that could be harder to find because they are seasonal or might only be sold in an international food store are cranberries, pomegranates, mangosteen, starfruits, and papayas. Pecans, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, flax seeds, and sunflower seeds are good choices for nuts and seeds. Make sure you use more of these spices in your cooking: cayenne pepper, turmeric, coriander, ground clove and cinnamon, and oregano. Some beverages include red wines (in moderation of course if you want the health benefits without the adverse effects of alcohol) and teas such as green, white, black, or oolong tea, rooibos which comes from a different plant (endemic of South Africa), or yerba maté (from South America) if you need higher levels of caffeine.
Go out and explore more phytochemicals! The more of them you add to your diet, the better your overall health will be.