Phytonutrients, could they soon be appearing on our food labels? Phytonutrients, also called phytochemicals, are substances found specifically in certain plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, spices and grains. Phytochemicals protect the plant from threats such as fungi, UV and insects but are also proven to have significant benefits for those who consume them.
There are more than 25,000 different phytonutrients, which have a variety of significant benefits. They have been found to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, enhance immunity, repair DNA damage from exposure to toxins, detoxify carcinogens and alter estrogen metabolism.
How can you get more phytonutrients?
The term ‘eat the rainbow’ has never held more truth. Phytonutrients are the compounds that give plants their pigments. To tell which plants are rich in phytonutrients look for those who are deeply coloured, such as berries, greens and spices. Of course, there are some exceptions to the rule, such as onions and garlic which contain little pigment, but by aiming to eat a rainbow of plant-based foods you will receive a range of phytochemicals and their associated benefits.
Don’t throw away the skins! Phytonutrients are often most concentrated in the skins of fruits and vegetables. To get the most out of your produce leave the skin on and do not overcook.
When you’re planning your menus, be sure to consider plant-based components which will increase the nutrient density of your dishes.
Six famous phytonutrients to look out for are:
Lignans mimic the effect of estrogen, so are considered phytoestrogens. Like all phytonutrients, they are found in fruits, vegetables, seeds and whole grains with a high concentration found in kale, broccoli, apricots, strawberries, flaxseed and sesame seeds.
Due to their estrogen-like activity lignans are associated with preventing hormone-related cancers with studies showing a positive result in terms of endometrial and ovarian cancers.
Resveratrol is a prominent phytochemical in grapes and red wine. A member of the stilbenoid phytonutrient group it has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and is being studied as a possible treatment for type 2 diabetes following positive preliminary studies.
There are hundreds of carotenoids. They present as the yellow, orange and red pigment in plants. Carrots, sweet potatoes, oranges and bell peppers all contain carotenoids. For optimal absorption, carotenoids should be consumed with a fat and are associated with eye health, anti-ageing, immune-system functionality and a reduced risk of cancer.
Curcumin is a very effective anti-inflammatory agent and antioxidant. It is found primarily in turmeric which has been used for centuries in India as a medicinal remedy. Based on successful preliminary trials it has been suggested that curcumin could aid in inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis as well as cystic fibrosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Ellagic Acid
Ellagic acid is found in a number of berries, including strawberries, raspberries and pomegranates. Also called tannins, ellagic acid may help protect against cancer by slowing the growth of cancer cells and aiding the liver to neutralize cancer-causing chemicals. Another potential benefit from ellagic acid is improved glucose metabolism which could be beneficial for type 2 diabetics and hyperglycemics.
This is a very large group of phytonutrients. They are found across a wide range of foods including apples, onions, coffee, grapefruit, tea, berries, chocolate broccoli and red wine. They are associated with longevity and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. One large-scale 25-year study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that flavonoid consumption across seven countries was significantly associated with longevity.
So embrace the rainbow of fruits, vegetables and spices at your disposal. Cook for colour.
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