What Are Phytonutrients – And Why Do I Need Them?
If you like to keep on top of nutrition advances in the news, you may have heard the term “phytonutrient”. Here’s a look at this important class of compounds that is emerging as more and more important to human health.
What are phytonutrients?
Phytonutrients, as the name implies, are chemical components found in plants, including fruits and vegetables. You may also hear them called “phytochemicals”. A growing body of research suggests that phytonutrients, eaten as food, cause certain biological responses in humans and other mammals. Those responses tend to result in a reduced risk of chronic diseases.
• Heart and circulatory disease;
• Certain types of cancer.
Citrus fruits – and notably, the zest (colored portion of the peel), yields many different types of phytonutrients. Here are the main types, and the health benefits that are believed to be associated with them.
Caretenoids – the compounds that make plants yellow, orange and red. They may help to neutralize free radicals (cellular damage), and repair DNA;
Flavonols – the compounds that give citrus their unique flavors. They may have anti-cancer properties, and mitigate damage at the cellular level.
Limonoids – these give lemons their luscious scent and odor. They may have antic-cancer properties, and help protect the liver.
Why exactly might they have those properties? Theories include the chemicals themselves, fiber, and/or a combination of substances in those foods. Research is ongoing and relatively recent, but many studies so far have come up with promising results and relationships.
While the modern study of phytonutrients is fairly recent, they have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. In ancient Greece, during the time of Hippocrates’ time (about 460–370 BCE), a form of aspirin was made from willow leaves.
Whole foods are best
Trials have used phytonutrients as supplements, with disappointing results. In some cases, intake of certain phytonutrients was associated with an increased risk of disease. It seems that isolating the phytonutrients from the foods that contain them does not have the same result.
The best advice? Eat a variety of brightly colored vegetables and fruits – including lemons, oranges, and other citrus fruits.