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Molecular science is finally confirming what mothers have always told their kids for ages: "Eat your fruits and vegetables." Eating phytonutrient-rich foods including fruits, vegetables, grains and teas appears to be an effective strategy for reducing risk of cancer and heart disease as well as a host of other diseases. Phytonutrient research is growing and more information continues to be available as more research is done. So, what are phytonutrients?

Phytonutrients (phyto means "plant" in Greek) are natural bioactive compounds found in fruits and vegetables that works together with vitamins, minerals and fiber to promote good health. Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and teas are rich sources of phytonutrients. Phytonutrients contain organic compounds of plants that are believed to promote human healthy. Unlike traditional nutrients (e.g., protein, fats, vitamins and minerals), phytonutrients are not currently considered "essential" for life. But that may soon be subject to change as scientific research continues to uncover more and more health benefits of phytonutrients. Because phytonutrients come from naturally occurring chemicals in plants, the term "phytochemicals" was coined.

What are phytochemicals? Phytochemicals are non-nutritive plant chemicals that contain protective, disease-preventing, compounds. Phytochemicals form part of the plants' immune system. They protect plants from disease, injuries, insects, drought, excessive heat, ultraviolet rays and poisons or pollutants in the air or soil. Both terms photonutrients and phytochemicals are used interchangeably. So, you'll see and hear both terms used. Don't worry. They mean the same thing and have the same benefits: promoting human health.

There are over 10,000 phytonutrients. And they have many positive health effects such as antioxidant, boosting the immune system, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial and cellular repair. Highly colored vegetables and fruits tend to be highest in these chemicals.

The best known phytonutrients are the carotenoids, flavonoids, polyphenols, phytosterols, indoles, lignans and isoflavones. Carotenoids are the red, orange and yellow pigments in fruits and vegetables. There are more than 600 naturally occurring carotenoids. Indoles are found in cruciferous vegetables, lignans in flaxseed and isoflavones can be found in peanuts, lentils, soy and other legumes.

  • Carotenoids appear to protect humans against certain cancers, heart disease and age-related macular degeneration. Carotenoids are identified by their colors. Probably the most well-known carotenoids is beta-carotene. Beta-carotene produces colors in the orange and yellow range. Lutein is what makes corn yellow, lycopene and zeaxanthin are what makes tomatoes red, carotene is what makes carrots orange and anthocyanin is what makes blueberries blue. Foods rich in carotenoids include: guavas, tomatoes, grapefruit, yellow peppers, corn, orange, marigold flowers, avocado strawberries, blueberries, leafy dark green vegetables, pumpkin, broccoli, mangoes and apricots.
  • Flavonoids are a subclass of polyphenols. They are the reddish pigments, found in red grape skins and citrus fruits while polyphenols are found in green tea and berries. Flavonoids help protect blood vessels from rupture or leakage, enhance the power of vitamin C, protect cells from oxygen damage and prevent excessive inflammation throughout your body. Sources of flavonoids include: apples, apricots, blueberries, pears, raspberries, strawberries, black beans, cabbage, onions, parsley, pinto beans and tomatoes.
  • Polyphenols are a diverse class of molecules containing multiple phenol rings. They are synthesized in large amounts by plants, certain fungi and a few animals and serve many purposes, including defense against predators/infections, defense against sunlight damage and chemical oxidation and coloration. They aid in the prevention of degenerative diseases, particularly cardiovascular diseases and cancers. The main dietary sources of polyphenols are fruits and plant-derived beverages such as fruit juices, tea, coffee and red wine. They can also be found in vegetables, cereals, chocolate and dry legumes. The polyphenol contribution to the antioxidant capacity of the human diet is much larger than that of vitamins. Polyphenols are the most abundant antioxidants in a person's diet. The total intake could amount to 1 gram a day, whereas combined intakes of beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E from food typically is about 100 mg a day.
  • Phytosterols (plant sterols) are fats that are part of plant cell membranes. They have the ability to lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein), also known as "bad cholesterol". Natural sources of phytosterols include cold-pressed oils like rice bran, flaxseed, olive, sesame and wheat germ, nuts and seeds, algae, seaweed, spirulina, vegetables, fruits, cereals, legumes (beans).
  • Indoles (ketole) belong to a class of phytonutrients which have been scientifically shown to benefit the body in a number of important ways, including a decreased risk of colon, breast and prostate cancer. They are found in cruciferous vegetables, which include cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, arugula, bok choy, broccoli, kale, mustard greens and turnips. The word cruciferous refers to a cross-shaped pattern found on the underside of the central stalk or core of these vegetables.
  • Lignans aren naturally occurring chemicals found in the cell walls of plants. They are considered antioxidants and phytoestrogens. Lignans are found in a variety of plants, which includes flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, rye, soybeans, broccoli and some berries. However, flax has a much higher concentration of lignans than other foods. The health benefits of lignans extend beyond hormone-dependent breast cancer, prostate cancer and osteoporosis to include brain function, cardiovascular disease, immune function, inflammation and reproduction.
  • Isoflavones are found in soy and have an influence on bone health among post-menopausal women. Recent studies have found that soy isoflavones can reduce menopause symptoms such as hot flushes and increase bone density in women. They are known to reduce the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis and several types of cancer. And, certain flavonoids in blueberries may actually reverse nerve cell aging. The highest amounts of soy isoflavones can be found in soy nuts and tempeh. Another natural source of isoflavones is red clover.

In most cases, raw vegetables have more phytonutrients than cooked ones. But, there are some exceptions. For example, cooking broccoli releases the enzyme, indole, that fights cancer. And, when you crush or chop garlic, it releases the enzyme, allicinase, to produce the phytonutrient, allicin. Allicin is the principle biological active compound of garlic. Scientific evidence suggest that allicin is responsible for the many health benefits associated with garlic. For example, allicin is effective against fatal infections such as tuberculosis and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) - a type (strain) of staph bacteria that does not respond to some antibiotics that are commonly used to treat staph infections.

Evidence that these compounds help our bodies is compelling. A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association has revealed that consuming just three servings of fruits and vegetables, was linked to a 22% decreased risk of stroke.

Only 9 percent of the American population eats an adequate amount of vegetables and fruits. Only 28 percent eat a fruit or vegetable at all. The National Cancer Institute recommends eating at least 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. How many servings are you getting per day? Now, there's some serious food for thought.

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