What are phytonutrients?

Once upon a time it was thought that fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals were all the nutrients necessary for growth and health. Now we know there’s another essential group of nutrients needed for optimal health — phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals. These are the nutrients often concentrated in the skins of many fruits and vegetables, and are responsible for their color, hue, scent, and flavor. Examples of foods rich in these nutrients include: tomatoes, red onions, green tea, grapes, red cabbages, sweet potatoes, broccoli, kale, parsley, spinach, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, melons, garlic, and the list goes on.

Plant-based foods promote good health

We have known for a while that plant-based foods are extremely beneficial to consume, and phytonutrients may be the reason why. There are literally thousands of them in our food. Some phytonutrients help our cells communicate better with each other, others help prevent mutations at a cellular level, some are anti-inflammatory, others are potent antioxidants and many have functions we are only beginning to understand. What we do know is they help prevent cancer, heart disease and most chronic diseases in general, are anti-aging, boost the immune system and generally promote health.

Best known phytonutrients

The best known phytonutrients are the carotenoids, flavonoids, polyphenols, indoles, lignans and isoflavones. Carotenoids include yellow, orange, and red pigment in fruits and vegetables. Dark, green, leafy vegetables are rich in the carotenoid, beta carotene, but the usual yellow color is masked by the chlorophyll, the green pigment in vegetables. Flavonoids are reddish pigments, found in red grape skins and citrus fruits while polyphenols are found in green tea and berries. Indoles are found in cruciferous vegetables, lignans in flaxseed and isoflavones can be found in peanuts, lentils, soy, and other legumes.

It’s best to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, the more varied the colors the better. This is because each class of phytonutrients has different effects. Like other nutrients, different phytonutrients offer different benefits and work synergistically with each other. For example, flavonoids and carotenoids have more health-promoting properties when they’re eaten together in the same food rather than when they are taken separately. It is always best to get your phytonutrients from fresh organic fruits and vegetables, but if you not eating enough of the real thing, I highly recommend a green powdered drink which contains a broad spectrum of phytonutrients.

Food preparation affects the phytonutrients and, raw vegetables usually have more nutrients than cooked ones. There are some exceptions; cooking broccoli, for example, releases the enzyme, indole, that fights cancer. When you crush or chop garlic it releases the enzyme, allicinase, to produce the active phytonutrient, allicin.

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