What Are Phytochemicals and Do We Need Them?

Phytochemicals, also sometimes referred to as phytonutrients or polyphenols are biologically active compounds of plant origin.  They are actually a plant's natural defence.  Normally, the properties are activated by damage to the plant which prevent insects and pests from eating them.  But what is it they say, one person’s meat is another person’s poison? 

Well, they are seemingly our meat.

A huge number of phytochemicals have been identified (8000+) and they are broadly classified as carotenoids and polyphenols but there are many further subdivisions.  It’s not just all the various colourful fruits and vegetables but also beans, pulses, tea, coffee, red wine, cacao, herbs, spices, condiments and good old olive oil.

And we are just starting to appreciate the health supportive properties of these compounds. 

They have been seen to:
-          Protect our DNA from damage,
-          Act as antioxidants,
-          Regulate hormonal function,
-          Support immune function,
-          Possess antimicrobial properties,

Of interest, they play a crucial role in inflammatory disease and our ability to fight off colds and infection (worth considering as we head into cold season) and one particular study found that high polyphenol consumption was associated with a 30% decrease in mortality in older adults.

Where Do We Find Them?

One example is allicin in garlic. Garlic is considered anti-bacterial and has been used for centuries.  This potent onion relative contains the active ingredient allicin, which fights infection and bacteria. British researchers gave 146 people either a placebo or a garlic extract for 12 weeks.  They found that the garlic takers were two-thirds less likely to catch a cold.

Other studies suggest that garlic lovers who eat more than six cloves a week have a 30% lower rate of colon cancer and a 50% lower rate of stomach cancer.  But the way garlic is processed can really change its effects.  It’s best to crush fresh garlic and let it stand as it allows enzymatic conversion of alliin to beneficial allicin. 

Sulforaphane is an isothiocyante stored mainly inside cruciferous veggies, like broccoli.  A great sulforaphane hack is to sprout your own broccoli seeds as these have way more sulphoraphane as the final plant. 

Anthocyanins (red, purple, and/or blue plant pigments) are found in many fruits but are thought to prevent the adhesion of pathogens to cell walls.  When compared to other berries, the photochemical bioavailability was much higher in cranberry juice as compared to others, which is why it is thought to prevent adhesion of pathogenic bacteria in the urinary tract, and why if you’ve ever suffered with one, a relative has force fed you cranberry juice!

You also find:

-          capsaicin in pepper which has been seen to help protect DNA from carcinogens.

-          resveratrol is found in grapes/grape skins,

-          lycopene in tomatoes – enhanced by the cooking process.

-          lutein in spinach

-          naringenin in grapefruit

The bottom line?

We have a number of fancy names for these nifty compounds, but the general message is to eat as many as possible in a diverse diet to reap the promising health benefits. In short, fill up on those fruits and veg!

You will also find a range of these compounds in Fivaday as a supplement to your balanced diet.