What are phytochemicals?
Phytochemicals are naturally occurring chemicals found only in plants that protect them from the outside world. They aren’t considered “essential nutrients” – meaning they’re not required by the human body and you won’t find them on a nutrition facts label – but research has shown they may provide health benefits when we consume them.
Phytochemicals often give foods their unique characteristics, like the bright colors of fruits and vegetables, the strong taste of garlic, the smell of ripe tomatoes and the spiciness of peppers. They cannot be manufactured or added to other foods. There are thousands of phytochemicals and scientists aren’t certain how they work, but the research shows that they may help protect against many age-related diseases.
Here are some everyday foods which are a great source of these powerful compounds. Lycopene which is found in many red foods such as tomatoes can promote prostate, urinary tract and heart health.(1) It’s interesting to note that cooked or canned tomatoes have more lycopene than fresh. Berries and brightly colored fruits have anthocyanin, a phytochemical which supports heart, brain, bone and cellular health and promote healthy aging.(2) Garlic and other members of the onion family contain allicin, which gives them their strong flavor and promotes healthy blood flow.(3)
Chili peppers contain capsaicin, which helps boost immunity and promote wound healing.(4) Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, dark leafy greens, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts have insoles that support healthy cells,(5) as well as isothiocyanates, which help your body naturally detoxify.(6) Isoflavones found in beans and other legumes support healthy bones.(7)
Other phytochemical-rich foods include tea, dark chocolate, nuts, whole grains, squash and spices. To increase your phytochemical intake, consider eating a variety of plant foods, especially colorful fruits and vegetables. Or as the saying goes, “eat the rainbow.”
(1) How Lycopene Helps Protect Against Cancer, http://www.pcrm.org/health/cancer-resources/diet-cancer/nutrition/how-lycopene-helps-protect-against-cancer
(2) Anthocyanins, http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/030314p20.shtml
(3) Effects of allicin on cardiovascular risk factors in spontaneously hypertensive rats. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23662381
(4) Some Like It Hot, http://preventcancer.aicr.org/site/News2?id=11165
(5) Cruciferous Vegetables and Cancer Prevention, http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/cruciferous-vegetables-fact-sheet
(6) Are isothiocyanates potential anti-cancer drugs? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4002831/
(7) The effects of phytoestrogen isoflavones on bone density in women: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14749241