What on earth is a Phytonutrient?

What is a pyhtonutrient?

In Greek ‘Phyto’ refers to plant and nutrient is any element or chemical compound required by humans for a healthy living. So phytonutrients or phytochemicals are plant-based nutrients. These phytonutrients help protect plants from hazardous microorganisms and fungi while in animals, they raise the body’s natural defense and also help in the proper functioning of various organ systems. 

So far more than 25,000 phytonutrients are discovered and these phytonutrients are found in almost every part of the plant like in fruits, vegetables, and even in seeds. In most cases, these phytonutrients are concentrated in colourful parts of the plants like fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains, etc. 

Not essential, but proven effective!

Although these important phytochemicals are not considered essential for humans as they are not nutrients in the strict sense of the term however they affect human health. Just like their protective role in plants, the phytonutrients also help us to remain healthy.

Most of the phytonutrients possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties so they help limit oxidative damages and localize inflammations. Certain phytonutrients carcinogens and repair DNA damage (due to toxins exposure). Still other phytonutrients are natural immune boosters and may reduce the risk of coronary diseases.

Based on their chemical structure, phytonutrients are divided into several classes. The following are the classes of phytonutrients.

  • Betalains
  • Chlorophyll
  • Indoles
  • Organosulfides
  • Phenols
  • Terpenes
  • Triterpenes

Each of the phytonutrient class is further divided into groups and every class may contain up to dozens of dozens of phytonutrient groups, which in turn contain hundreds of phytonutrients. The following are phytonutrient groups.

  • Carotenoids
  • Curcuminoids
  • Flavonoids
  • Glucosinolates
  • Hydroxycinnamic acids
  • Lignans
  • Lipids
  • Stilbenes
  • Sulfides
  • Tocopherol

Among the several phytonutrient groups, the following are of more interest as they significantly impact our health.

  • Carotenoids: Carotenoids are colorful plant pigments and they are most abundantly found in colorful flowers, fruits, and vegetables. So far more than 600 carotenoids are discovered out of which alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene are the most common. Each of these carotenoids has its specific benefits like alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin are precursors of vitamin A and once into the body, they are readily converted in vitamin A. Vitamin A boosts immunity and reduces the antioxidative damages.

You’ve possibly heard of these compounds, even if you didn’t know they were phytonutrients!

Similarly lutein and zeaxanthin are components of human retina and therefore they are associated with eye health and lycopene lowers down the risks of prostate cancer. For increasing the bioavailability of carotenoids, they must be consumed with fats. Bright colored fruits and vegetables like carrots, yams, sweet potatoes, papaya, watermelon, cantaloupe, mangos, spinach, kale, tomatoes, bell peppers, and oranges are rich in these amazing phytonutrients.

  • Ellagic acid: Ellagic acid also known as tannin exhibits strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogen properties. Tannin also lowers blood pressure and helps remove arterial plaque and thus contributing to heart health. Ellagic acid is also known to improve glucose metabolism by blocking the intestinal enzyme alpha-glucosidase, which triggers glucose absorption.

Berries like raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, cranberries, and grapes, pomegranates, and walnuts are rich in ellagic acid. 

  • Flavonoids: It is a very large group of phytonutrients and flavones, anthocyanins, flavonones, isoflavones, hesperidin, catechins and flavonols are its famous sub-groups. Flavonoids are linked with longevity and also they support heart health. Flavonols help reduce risks of asthma, some types of cancers, and cardiovascular diseases. Hesperidin present in citrus fruits has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

This diverse phytonutrient group is present in a wide range of fruits and vegetables like apples, onions, coffee, grapefruit, tea, berries, chocolate, legumes, red wine, broccoli, cabbage, kale, leeks, tomatoes, ginger, lemons, parsley, carrots, and buckwheat.

  • Curcumin:  The yellowish curcumin is primarily found in turmeric. This phytonutrient is used as a traditional medicine for thousands of years. Curcumin is an effective anti-inflammatory agent and also exhibits strong antioxidant properties. It has also anti-cancer effects and is found effective in limiting mouth, colon, stomach, and liver cancers. Curcumin also improves cardiovascular health as it helps reduce the level of bad cholesterol (LDL). Curcumin also improves the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. 
  • Phytoestrogens: Phytoestrogens are also known as Lignans. These phytonutrients are called phytoestrogens because of their estrogen-like effects. Phytoestrogens are suspected of preventing endometrial cancer and osteoporosis. There is also inconclusive evidence about the effectiveness of lignans in preventing prostate cancer. Kale, broccoli, apricots, and strawberries are rich in phytoestrogens.
  • Resveratrol:  Grapes and red wine are rich in Resveratrol and this phytonutrient help reduces the risk of coronary diseases and certain types of cancers. Also, certain animal studies have suggested that Resveratrol may extend life. Resveratrol has also antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties and it helps reduce oxidative damages.
  • Glucosinolates: Glucosinolates are found in vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, kale, and brussel sprouts. These phytonutrients reduce the risk of certain types of cancers. 

Bottom Line

Phytonutrients may not be classed as proper nutrients but considering their significant health benefits, they must be included in daily diet. By daily consuming these amazing plant-based chemicals, you may definitely become healthier.