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What Are Phytonutrients and What Do They Do in the Body?

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Phytonutrients are additional compounds (besides just vitamins and minerals) found in foods that are associated with health. Phytonutrients work in a variety of ways by improving body process that help fight and/or reduce the risk of developing some diseases. Phytonutrients are also called phytochemicals and are bioactive chemicals in food that slow the aging process and reduce the risk of many diseases. Phytonutrients are not vitamins or minerals, but parts of plants that are produced to protect the plants against fungi, bacteria, viruses and harmful environmental conditions. Most fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients and they are part of what gives food its color, smell, flavor and texture. Phytonutrients are linked to enhancing immunity, improving communication among cells, detoxifying carcinogens, causing cancer cells to die, repairing damaged DNA and serving as antioxidants.

There are thousands of phytonutrients, and single foods can contain hundreds of different phytochemicals. Carotenoids, flavonoids, isothiocyanates, phenols, polyols, phytoestrogens, phytic acid, prebiotics, probiotics, soy protein and sulfides/thiols all fall under the term Phytonutrients. The following are some of the more well researched phytonutrients, how they appear to work and what foods you can find them in.

Carotenoids

  • Beta carotene: is found in bright yellow/orange fruits and vegetables (pumpkins, papayas, carrots, sweet potatoes) and green vegetables like kale and broccoli. Associated with improving antioxidant defense in cells and neutralizing free radicals.
  • Lycopene: is found in red fruits and vegetables (tomatoes, watermelon and guava) and may reduce the risk of prostate cancer.
  • Lutein: Dietary sources include green vegetables (collard greens, kale, Brussels sprouts and spinach), egg yolks and kiwi. It may contribute to healthy vision.

Flavonoids

  • Anthocynaidins: antioxidants that stop the damage to cells by neutralizing free radicals. Also associated with supporting healthy immune and brain function. Found in dark colored fruits like blackberries, blueberries, cherries, red grapes, plums, kiwi, strawberries and cranberries, as well as vegetables like cabbage and eggplant.
  • Flavanols: may help with heart health, antioxidant defenses in the cells and stopping the damage of free radicals. Found in apples, tea, wine, chocolate, cocoa, grapes and broccoli.
  • Flavanones: neutralizes free radicals to stop damage to cells and are found in citrus fruits.
  • Proanthocyanidins: may help maintain heart and urinary tract health and are found in apples, cocoa, cranberries, strawberries, wine and peanuts.
  • Resveratrol: supports antioxidant defenses and is found in red foods like grapes and wine.

Isothiocyanates

  • Sulphoraphane: antioxidant properties slow the damage to cells and supports detoxification. Found in cruciferous vegetables like kale, turnips, bok choy and cabbage.

Phenols

  • Caffeic Acid/Feruilic Acid: associated with heart and vision health and supporting cellular antioxidant defenses. Found in apples, citrus fruits and pears.
  • Ellagic Acid: neutralizes free radicals and supports cell defenses. Found in berries, kiwi and red grapes.

Polyols

  • Sugar Alcohols: include xylitol, sorbitol, lactitol and mannitol and are used in chewing gums, beverages and sweeteners as a replacement for sugar. These are associated with a decreased risk of dental cavities.

Phytoestrogens

  • Isoflavones: found in soy-based foods and may reduce the symptoms of menopause, as well as supporting brain, immune and bone health.
  • Lignans: support heart and immune system health and are found in high fiber foods like flaxseed, rye, wheat bran, barley, oatmeal and vegetables.
  • Phytic Acid: may help with maintaining normal blood sugar levels and heart health. Also supports antioxidant defenses and neutralizes free radicals in the cells.

Prebiotics and Probiotics

  • Inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides, polydextrose: linked to improved gastrointestinal health and improved calcium absorption. Found in whole grains, garlic, honey, leeks, fortified foods and onions.
  • Lactobacilli, bifidobacteria: supports gastrointestinal health and systemic immunity. You can consume these in yogurt, kefir and other dairy products.

Soy Protein: may reduce the risk for coronary heart disease and is found in soy-based foods.

Sulfides/Thiols

  • Ally methyl trisulfide, diallyl sulfide: may help maintain heart and immune health, as well as detoxify the body of detrimental compounds. Dietary sources include garlic, onions, leeks, scallions and chives.
  • Dithiolthiones: Supports immune health and found in cruciferous vegetables.
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Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor's Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master's Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 2012-2014 working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.

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