By Suma Ahuja MD
The term “Phytochemicals” refers to bioactive compounds found in certain foods, especially fruits and vegetables, the word “phyto” implies plants.
Phytochemicals, as the name suggests are chemical compounds found in plants that posses the ability to fight certain diseases thereby creating a protective environment within the body.
Although, over a thousand different types of phytochemicals have been identified, studies indicate that there are many more yet to be discovered. Some of the most commonly known phytochemicals are those found in foods like tomatoes, watermelons, soy, green tea, and sulfur rich vegetables like cabbage & broccoli. The functions and benefits associated with these phytochemicals are based on the medium of action they choose to exude in order to fight diseases like cancers, heart diseases, and diabetes. For example, a phytochemical can function as an “antioxidant” which eliminates free radicals from the body, thereby, preventing various chronic health disorders as well as preventing premature aging.
While, there is no dearth of clinical data reflecting the many medicinal properties associated with phytochemicals, it is worth highlighting a few facts about the benefits of consuming these disease fighting compounds.
- Phytochemicals are typically divided into the following categories: Carotenoids, Flavonoids, Resrveratrol, and Ellagic acids.
- Vitamins A (beta-carotene), C, & E, and minerals such as selenium aside from providing many nutritional benefits also act as antioxidants within the body, mainly, preventing heart diseases and cancers.
- Phytochemicals like lycopene found in foods such as, tomatoes, watermelon, and grapefruit can help fight certain cancers, mainly, breast and prostate cancer.
- While consumption of phytochemicals is very beneficial, studies have shown that some phytochemicals, especially, the ones that perform antioxidant functions when consumed as a supplement can result in adverse reactions. For example, a very famous study called the “Alpha Tocopherol, Beta Carotene Cancer Prevention Study” tried to determine whether taking vitamin E and beta carotene supplements daily would result in the reduction of the risk of developing lung cancer. In this study 18% more lung cancers developed in the people taking the antioxidant supplements, thus, it is always advised to ensure that phytochemicals are consumed as fruits and vegetables as opposed to supplements.
- Phytochemicals found in soy are called Isoflavones. These can imitate the hormone estrogen and help to reduce menopausal symptoms and osteoporosis in women.
This article was previously published on our old site Food Health and trends