Phytochemicals, from the Greek word phyto (meaning “from plants”), are neither vitamins nor minerals. Phytochemicals are simply nutrients from a plant; they are the naturally occurring chemical compounds found in fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and legumes. Often antioxidants, these “protector nutrients” are crucial components of the plant’s defense system against viruses, bacteria, predators, oxidation and fungi. Lucky for us, they have many of the same affects on the human body. Hundreds of research studies link phytochemicals and phytochemical-rich diets to reduced risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, cancer, blindness, and a slowing of the aging process and strengthening of the immune system.
The best way to ensure you are getting all the protective nutrients your body needs is to eat phytochemical laden foods raw or lightly steamed as cooking and processing can often destroy these beneficial compounds.
Some of the most common and powerful phytochemicals include:
- Orange and yellow vegetables like carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and winter squash are rich sources of alpha- and beta-carotene. * Spinach is also a rich source of beta-carotene, although the chlorophyll in the leaves hides the yellow-orange pigment
- Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale are particularly rich sources of lutein. Other sources include turnip greens, kiwi, corn, peas, dandelion greens, mustard greens, avocado and collard greens.
- Lycopene is often found in red and pink foods – giving tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon, and guava their red color.
Chlorophyll is the pigment that gives plants and algae their green color. Dark green, leafy vegetables like spinach, parsley, watercress and arugula are rich sources of natural chlorophylls.
Turmeric is the spice derived from curcumin, which gives it its yellow color.
- Anthocyanins can be found in red, blue, and purple berries, red and purple grapes and red wine.
- Flavanols include teas (particularly green, white, black and oolong), chocolate, grapes, berries, and apples.
- Flavanones found in citrus fruits and juices, such as oranges, grapefruits, and lemons.
- Isoflavones are widely found in soybeans, soy foods, and legumes.
Allylsulfides are found in white foods such as garlic and onions.
Lignans are polyphenols found in plants. Lignans are present in a wide variety of plant foods, including seeds (flax, pumpkin, sunflower, poppy, sesame), whole grains (rye, oats, barley), bran (wheat, oat, rye), and beans.
Resveratrol is a polyphenolic compound found in grapes, red wine, purple grape juice, peanuts, and some berries.