Phytochemical is a general term that refers to the chemicals that are found in or produced by plants. Phytochemicals are non-nutritive plant chemicals that have protective or disease preventive properties.

Generally the term phytochemicals is used to refer to plant chemicals that researchers believe have health benefits like preventing cancer.

The stimulating colors and flavors in fruits and vegetables result from thousands of phytochemicals found in edible plant foods. Today, the adage “eat more vegetables” is more important than ever before in our history.

The word “phyto” derives from the Greek word for plant. You find phytochemicals in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, soy, herbs, seeds, and green tea.

Phytochemicals appear to help the body defend itself against damage. These compounds may help prevent diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. It may also prevent formation of carcinogens and boost immune function.

Phytochemicals act as antioxidants to keep unstable molecules or free radicals from damaging cells. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of identified phytochemicals. Orange juice has 59 identified phytochemicals while garlic and onions contain at least 50. Onions and garlic also contain allylic sulfide, which helps enzymes detoxify carcinogens.

There are more than thousand known phytochemicals. It is well-known that a plant produces these chemicals to protect itself but recent research demonstrate that they can protect humans against diseases. Some of the well-known phytochemicals are lycopene in tomatoes, isoflavones in soy and flavonoids in fruits. They are not essential nutrients and are not required by the human body for sustaining life.

How do phytochemicals work?

  • Antioxidant — Most phytochemicals have antioxidant activity and protect our cells against oxidative damage and reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Phytochemicals with antioxidant activity: allyl sulfides (onions, leeks, garlic), carotenoids (fruits, carrots), flavonoids (fruits, vegetables), polyphenols (tea, grapes).
  • Hormonal action — Isoflavones, found in soy, imitate human estrogens and help to reduce menopausal symptoms and osteoporosis.
  • Stimulation of enzymes — Indoles, which are found in cabbages, stimulate enzymes that make the estrogen less effective and could reduce the risk for breast cancer. Other phytochemicals, which interfere with enzymes, are protease inhibitors (soy and beans), terpenes (citrus fruits and cherries).
  • Interference with DNA replication — Saponins found in beans interfere with the replication of cell DNA, thereby preventing the multiplication of cancer cells. Capsaicin, found in hot peppers, protects DNA from carcinogens.
  • Anti-bacterial effect: The phytochemical allicin from garlic has anti-bacterial properties.

Broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels prouts and other cruciferous vegetables contain phytochemicals that may reduce the risk of breast and colon cancer.

Foods containing phytochemicals are already part of our daily diet. In fact, most foods contain phytochemicals except for some refined foods such as sugar or alcohol. Some foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, beans, fruits and herbs, contain many phytochemicals. The easiest way to get more phytochemicals is to eat more fruit; (blueberries, cranberries, cherries, apples) and vegetables (cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, broccoli). It is recommended take daily at least 5 to 9 servings of fruits or vegetable. Fruits and vegetables are also rich in minerals, vitamins and fiber and low in saturated fat.

Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, collard greens and kale contain the phytochemical lutein, which acts as an antioxidant, and protects against cell damage.

Soybeans and legumes contain the phytochemicals protease inhibitors, isoflavones, saponins and phytoesterols. These may slow tumor growth and may help prevent colon cancer, block entry of estrogen into cells, which may reduce risk of ovarian cancer and may prevent cancer cells from multiplying.

The National Cancer Institute recommends between seven and nine servings every day. The average person eats about two. There are supplements with phytochemicals, or phyto-fortified foods, but these products are expensive and have not proven beneficial. The American Dietetic Association says the health benefits of phytochemicals obtained through consumption of a varied diet using the normal food supply is preferable rather than though supplements. Phytochemicals in pill form are of no benefit and may even be toxic.

It does sound daunting to manage seven to nine servings of fruits and vegetables, but if you use our imagination and creativity, you can do so without too much difficulty. Learn which foods contain them. Incorporate those foods high in phytochemicals as much as you can.

Plants with deep, bright colors contain the highest amount of valuable nutrients. Steam, broil or microwave vegetables to retain the most nutrients. Overcooking leaches nutrients so when cooking vegetables on the stove, use small amounts of water and shorter cooking times.

Making phytochemical-rich foods a greater part of your diet is an inexpensive, easy, good-for-the-soul way to help your health.

Read More: Essential Nutrients