Phytochemicals are plant chemicals that are naturally occurring to protect plants from injurious agents such as insects, microbes, oxygen and UV light. Any one food can contain hundreds of phytochemicals. They are not considered nutrients so they aren’t necessary for life. However, many experiments have shown that phytochemicals have antioxidant properties.

Functions of phytochemicals:

  • Reduce inflammation which is linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular disease
  • Enhance the activity of certain enzymes throughout the body that function to detoxify carcinogens
  • Protect against cancer by slowing tumor cell growth and instructing cancer cells to die
  • Protect against infections indirectly by enhancing our immune function and directly by acting as antibacterial and antiviral agents
  • Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering blood lipids, blood pressure and blood clotting

Different phytochemical health claims:

Carotenoids: Diets rich in these phytochemicals may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and age-related eye diseases

Food sources: Red, orange, and deep-green vegetables and fruits such as carrots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, apricots, kale, spinach, pumpkin and tomatoes

Flavonoids: Diets rich in these are associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, possibly because of reduced inflammation, blood clotting and blood pressure and increased detoxification of carcinogens or reduction in replication of cancerous cells.

Food sources: berries, black and green tea, chocolate, purple grapes and juice, citrus fruits, olives, soybeans and soy products, flaxeed, whole wheat

Phenolic Acids: Have similar benefits of flavonoids

Food Sources: coffee beans, fruits (apples, pears, berries, grapes, oranges, prunes, strawberries), potatoes, mustard, oats, soy

Phytoestrogens: May provide benefits to bones and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancers of reproductive tissues

Food Sources: Soybeans and soy products, flaxeed, whole grains

Organosulfur Compounds: May protect against a wide variety of cancers

Food Sources: Garlic, leeks, onions, chives, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, horseradish, mustard greens

Source: Thompson, Janice, Melinda Manore, and Linda A. Vaughan. The Science of Nutrition. San Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2011. Print.


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