Buzz word: Phytonutrients – what are they and how can I get them?
Maybe you have heard of the term phytonutrients…maybe you haven’t. Either way, it is a good word to know, and an important component to a healthy diet. Phytonutrients, also referred to as phytochemicals, are a class of nutrients that are only found in plant foods. You may also hear terms such as antioxidant or polyphenol, which are various types of nutrients under the phytonutrient umbrella. Plant foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes. Technically, phytonutrients are non-essential nutrients, meaning humans don’t need them for survival like we do other essential nutrients like vitamin A, potassium, or zinc. However, just because they are not categorized as “essential” does not mean they are not beneficial. Individuals that include a wide variety of phytonutrients in their diet not only survive, but they thrive.
So, what exactly are phytonutrients? These nutrients develop within plants during their growth cycle. Let’s use apples as an example. When apples grow on an apple tree, their growth cycle from flower to fruit takes approximately 4-6 months. During that time, the developing apple may be exposed to a wide variety of environmental exposures, such as heat, cold, drought, and exposure to insects or other small bugs. The developing apple also goes through many stages of development, such as germination and photosynthesis. All these factors, from growth to environmental exposures, contribute to the development of various phytonutrients. For example, quercetin is a compound found in apples that develops based on the amount of sunlight exposure there was during growth. An apple at the top of the tree, basking in more sunlight than ones found at the bottom of the tree, could potentially have higher levels of quercetin. No need to fret over this while grocery shopping! It will be impossible to discern an apple from the top of the tree once it has been picked and placed out for shoppers. All apples will have some amount of quercetin, and that is what truly matters. Quercetin acts as an anti-inflammatory agent that helps prevent heart disease and reduce risk of cancer development.
Quercetin isn’t the only exciting phytonutrient found in apples. There are hundreds more, all working synergistically together to promote proper cell division in our bodies, reduce inflammation, and fight off dangerous free radicals that cause damage to our healthy cells. This helps us avoid diseases and promotes healthy growth, development, and aging from birth to adulthood and into our elder years. Apples aren’t the only food with an array of phytonutrients. All plant foods contain them, and a lot of them. There are quite literally thousands of phytonutrient compounds found amongst your fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and legumes. Over 25,000 phytonutrients have been identified through research. While not all have been thoroughly studied, it is an eye-opening fact that the foods we eat contain far more than just calories, vitamins, and minerals.
Now that you know about this majestic force found in our plant foods, how does one go about getting a good variety of these? Thankfully, the answer to that is quite simple. Aim to include a variety of colors in your diet and eat seasonally. The different colors reflected in our plant foods often represent different phytonutrients. For example, beta-carotene is a phytonutrient responsible for orange pigment found in foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash. Anthocyanin, the compound that makes foods blue or purple, like blueberries, eggplant, and purple grapes, acts as an antioxidant. Lycopene, responsible for the red hues found in tomatoes and pink hues found in grapefruits, has antioxidant properties that help reduce risk factors leading to cancer and cardiovascular disease. The list goes on! Research is on-going regarding phytonutrients and their benefits, but one thing we do know for certain is that a varied plant-focused diet is the best way to go. Avoid getting phytonutrients from supplemental sources and stick to real food. Variety is key. Incorporating different colors and different food choices throughout the year is the best way to obtain beneficial phytonutrients to support your health throughout your lifetime.
Interested in a guide to help you with colorful, seasonal eating? Download this free graphic outlining some seasonal fruits and vegetables one side, and plant foods by color on the flip side.
Another great resource for learning more about phytonutrients and their benefits: American Institute of Cancer Research