Phytochemicals refer to a variety of natural plant-based chemical compounds. They are found in fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and other plants. Scientists have identified tens of thousands of them, although only a small fraction have been studied closely.
Some of the more commonly known phytochemicals include beta carotene, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), folic acid, and vitamin D.
Phytochemicals from whole plants are associated with the prevention and treatment of the leading causes of death in our country, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Phytochemicals are also referred to as phytonutrients; however, I prefer the word phytochemical because life itself is a biochemical process.
- Metabolism is a combination of chemical processes occurring within a living cell or organism. These processes are necessary for the maintenance of life. In metabolism substances are broken down to yield energy for vital cell activity.
- All cells within our body communicate with all other cells by chemical means. Cell communication is dependent upon chemical processes.
- Enzymes are proteins capable of producing chemical changes in organic substances by catalytic action.
Phytonutrients is a word used by the pharmaceutical companies to promote various nutrient supplements.
Phytochemicals come in many classes. The list is long, but you have probably heard of carotenoids, flavonoids and sulfides.
Carotenoids are the most familiar. They give fruits and vegetables their red, orange and yellow color. These compounds are believed to protect against certain cancers, heart disease and even vision loss due to macular degeneration. This group includes carrots, green leafy vegetables, oranges and sweet potatoes, to name a few. In each plant, it is believed there are hundreds of different phytochemicals. In fact just one orange contains more than 170 different phytochemicals!
Every plant food contains several classes of phytochemicals. That is why a varied diet is so important. These plant-based micro chemicals are synergistic, which means when taken together they may increase each other’s effectiveness. Two different plant-based chemicals received by a cell in combination may result in a different instruction to that cell than each one separately. Three received in combination may represent a completely different message, and so on. The number of combinations is mind-boggling. It is not feasible to research all of these possible combinations.
Can we get all the phytochemicals we need from nutritional supplements?
The American Cancer Society highly recommends a diet rich in whole fruits and vegetables as opposed to relying on dietary supplements. They state: “at this time there have been no studies in humans showing that any phytochemical supplements can prevent or treat cancer. Available scientific evidence does not support claims that taking phytochemical supplements is as helpful as consuming the fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains from which they are taken.”
Robert H Lustig, M.D. is more critical. He states in his recently published bestseller, Fat Chance, that nutritional supplements can not be substituted for micro nutrients found in real foods. “This is a real dilemma. Micronutrients matter – the biochemistry says so – except they don’t work when provided as supplements in clinical trials.” He asks, “So why does real food work while supplements don’t?” His answer: “Better to go with the tried and true answer to combat metabolic syndrome. We know what works…… It’s called real food.”
Today, we know that phytochemicals have these functions:
- reduce cancer risk by activating the body’s immune mechanisms
- detoxify cancer promoters and free radicals
- modify hormone levels to reduce the risk of cancers from excess hormone action
- act as potent antioxidants
- influence metabolic enzymes to increase or decrease speed to benefit the entire immune response
- inhibit destructive enzymes and bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic attack
Phytochemicals – plant-based micro chemicals – from fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains activate and support the body’s immune system. Also, many experts state that people can reduce their risk of cancer significantly by their use. Research indicates that nutritional supplements are not effective compared to the foods from which they are derived. If you take supplements, also make sure you eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables at each meal.