What are phytonutrients?
we read words without understanding what they mean. The term “phytonutrient” is
one such example. Phytonutrients or phytochemicals are thousands of natural bioactive
compounds found in a variety of plant foods. “Phyto" has its origin in the
Greek word for plant. These bioactive compounds give colour to foods and protect
plants from harmful bacteria.
What do they do?
the human diet, these phytonutrients play a role in optimising immune function to
reduce the risk of infection. These bioactive compounds can be anti-microbial,
anti-inflammatory and even anti-ageing. Research has even shown that certain
phytonutrients play a role in improving blood lipid levels, which can reduce
risk for heart disease. Lowering other risk factors which affect chronic
disease, such as blood pressure, has also been associated with diets that have
higher intakes of phytonutrients.
Read: Micronutrients boost immunity
Where do we find them?
and vegetables as well as other plant-based foods such as whole grains, nuts,
beans and certain teas contain these bioactive powercompounds. Unlike vitamins
and minerals, phytonutrients aren't considered essential for health. They
optimise and promote good health but biological reactions still function
without them. There is however minimised protection against disease without a
variety of phytonutrients present in the diet. More than 25,000 phytonutrients
have been identified, but let’s look at four of the better known phytonutients and
The most common carotenoids are
beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein found in purple, white, red, green and
orange plant foods. These compounds affect cell signalling and messaging, and
as such have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and
certain cancers. Lutein specifically has a role in optimal eye health as well
as preventing uterine, prostate, breast, and lung cancers.
Read: Potential dark side to diets high in Beta-carotene
2. Ellagic acid
The highest levels of ellagic acid are found in blackberries,
cranberries, pecans, pomegranates, raspberries, strawberries, walnuts and
grapes. Ellagic acid has been shown to
significantly inhibit cell processes that result in multiplication and movement
of cancer cells. As such, this powerful plant compound has been linked to
cancer prevention, particularly cancers of the prostate and breast.
Flavonoids are phenolic compounds found in berries,
legumes, tea, grapes, olive oil, cocoa, walnuts, peanuts, spices, fruits, green
vegetables and onions. Flavonoids form a very diverse group of compounds with
more than 5,000 different bioactive nutrients being identified in this group
alone. Among the biological activities,
flavonoids act against damaging free radicals that destroy cells and interfere
with optimal cell growth and healing.
Read: Flavonoids – powerful antioxidants
Resveratrol is a natural compound made by
plants in stress conditions and under attack from harmful bacteria. It is found
in high concentrations in the skin of purple grapes, strawberries, blueberries,
mulberries, peanuts and red wine. It is a neuroprotective compound that
contributes to improved brain health. It has beneficial effects on the
cardiovascular system due to its anti-oxidant properties that preserve the
functioning of cells in the arteries.
The phytonutrient food group packs a powerful
punch when it comes to improving health and protecting us against illness and
chronic disease. These compounds are like little soldiers patrolling and protecting
the blood vessels and cells that make up the vital organs of the body. These
super soldiers defend against disease and damage and ensure optimal cell
growth, repair and health.
To enjoy the benefits of this army, eat a
wide variety of plant based food sources in their most natural state at a
minimum of five portions per day. Focus specifically on filling your
plate with the colours of the rainbow to gain every benefit phytonutrients have
Antioxidants: top foods identified
Mediterranean diet keeps seniors' minds healthier
US adults don't eat enough fruit and vegetables
1. Duyff, R. American Dietetic Association
Complete Food and Nutrition Guide, Wiley, 2012.
2. Neng Wang, Zhi-Yu Wang, Sui-Lin Mo, et al.
(2012) Ellagic acid, a phenolic compound, exerts anti-angiogenesis effects via
VEGFR-2 signalling pathway in breast cancer. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2012
August; 134(3): 943–955.
3. Gupta C and Prakash D (2014)
Phytonutrients as therapeutic agents. J Complement Integr Med. 2014; 11(3):