Phytochemicals are found in plants and are not needed for normal body functions but have health benefits such as preventing cancer or reducing inflammation. Many of them are the chemicals that give many fruits and vegetables their bright colors. Phytochemicals are divided into several groups based on their chemical structure. Flavonoids are one of these groups and are sometimes called bioflavonoids. Flavonoids make up a large group – the first five listed here are members. Other groups include phenolic acids, hydroxycinnamic acids, lignans, carotenoids and saponins.
Quercetin is a type of flavonoid. There are indications that it may have some anti-inflammatory (inhibits production and release of histamine) and anti-cancer activity. Foods high in quercetin include apples, black & green tea and onions.
Resveratrol is also a type of flavonoid. It is the phytochemical believed to give red wine its healthful benefits. It is made in the skin of some red grapes as an antifungal substance. Resveratrol has been shown to interfere with carcinogenesis. There are also reports of its effectiveness against aging, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cardiac fibrosis, but these have not been confirmed.
Catechins are also in the flavonoid family of phytochemicals. They can been found in white and green tea. Catehins are believed by many to slow or prevent many cancers, some studies indicate otherwise however.
Cyanidin is a type of anthocyanin and is also a flavonoid. It is a pigment found in mostly in berries. Cyanidin has antioxidant effects and may reduce the risk of developing cancer and heart disease. Foods high in cyanidin include blackberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, plums and apples.
Isoflavones are also known as phytoestrogens and are yet another member of the flavonoid family. Subtypes of isoflavones are daidzein, genistein and glycitein. They may offer protection from some types of cancer. Foods high in isoflavones include soy,
alfalfa sprouts, peanuts and other legumes.
Lignans are another type of phytoestrogen. They are antioxidants and can be found in flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and whole grains such as rye.
7) Phenolic acids
Phenolic acids include curcumin among others. Curcumin is the active ingredient of the spice turmeric and is found in mustard. Curcumin has been in the news off and on recently as a possible anti-cancer agent.
Carotenoids are well known for their antioxidant effects. They are divided in two main groups: carotenes and xanthophylls. Specific well known carotenoids include beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein. Foods high in beta-carotene include yellow and orange fruits and vegetables such as carrots. Some studies have shown that lycopene can reduce the risk of cancer. Foods high in lycopene include tomatoes (and tomato sauce), watermelon and papaya. Lutein can be found in foods such as spinach, other green leafy vegetables and papaya, squash and pumpkin.
Saponins can be found in legumes and grains such as soybeans and alfalfa. They may have some cholesterol lowering abilities. Saponins are also natural detergents and are sometimes used to make soap.
Isothiocyanates have been shown to have anti-cancer activity. Foods include cruciferous vegetables like brocolli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage.
So far over 900 different phytochemicals have been discovered – and more are being found all the time. For this reason it is important to make sure you have lots of phytochemicals in your diet. Typical Americans do not eat of lot of fresh fruits and vegetables – yet it is essential to eat these types of foods to be able to get enough phytochemicals (as well as vitamins). Since phytochemicals are found in plants it is very important to eat lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains. It is recommended to eat lots of plant based foods that are dark green or other bright colors everyday.
This list of individual phytochemicals and phytochemical families is not complete, but should give you a good place to start with improving your diet and health. For more information see the Ohio State University article: Phytochemicals – Vitamins of the Future? or Wikipedia.
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