In a healthy and varied diet we can find a quantity of phytochemicals that are beneficial to our health. At the same time, the combination of different phytochemicals in the same food strengthens and enhances its effects.
Phytochemicals are substances naturally present in foods of plant origin. Research is currently investigating the benefits they bring to health, focusing primarily on their antioxidant power and their possible role in cancer prevention.
On the other hand, phytochemicals are not exactly nutrients, so they have no energy or nutritional function. For this reason the foods that contain them are called functional foods, because they bring health benefits.
In a varied and healthy diet, we can find phytochemicals in sufficient quantities to bring benefits to our health. Thus, the combination, within the same food, of different phytochemicals strengthens and improves their effects.
Functions of phytochemicals and benefits of their consumption
Phytochemicals are responsible for the color, smell and taste of the dishes. For example, carotenoids are elements rich in provitamin A, so they have functions similar to those of this vitamin.
The functions attributed to phytochemicals include that of contributing to the maintenance of good eyesight, as well as to the integrity of the bone and epithelial system.
Several phytochemicals have a primarily antioxidant function. For this reason, they help calm inflammation. They also act as protectors in cardiovascular diseases.
Another of the best known effects of phytochemicals is a possible correlation with the prevention of certain tumor or carcinogenic processes. This function is possible thanks to the conversion of potentially toxic or harmful substances into non-dangerous ones.
Some of these substances also work together to protect the immune system. We can therefore say that there are many beneficial properties attributed to phytochemicals.
Also find out, this reference substance phytochemical.
Characteristics of phytochemicals
Phytochemicals are substances that exist only in the plant kingdom and that are available in very small quantities. Yet most of them have not yet been studied.
However, we are not talking about a group of nutrients; diseases do not arise due to their deficiency, but rather enhance the action of nutrients.
Furthermore, they are not as essential to our body as are proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins or minerals. Precisely because they are antioxidants, they exert a preventive and curative action on the body.
Types of phytochemicals
The most common classification of phytochemicals is made according to their molecular structure, as it is elaborated on the basis of food sources:
Within the group of phenols we can, in turn, make a further classification:
- Flavonoids: found in sour fruit, such as cherries, apples, grapes, azerole, onion and pepper. The flavonoids include: anthocyanins, catechins, isoflavones, tannins, rutin and quercetin.
- Phenolic acids: phytic acid, gallic acid, chlorogenic acid, for example. Some of the richest sources of these acids are legumes, whole grains, tea, and artichoke.
- Non-flavonoid polyphenols: like resveratrol or the lignans contained in red wine, this group includes flax seeds, whole grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables.
You may also be interested in herbal references botanical.
Terpenes are divided into two groups:
- Carotenoids: such as lycopenes, alpha-carotene, lutein, beta-carotene or capsaicin, found in carrots, squash, orange, mango, spinach, tomato, watermelon, grapefruit , in red pepper or papaya.
- Non-carotenoids: these include phytosterols, saponins or limonoids. Vegetable oils such as soy and enriched foods such as cassava and quinoa are some examples of foods high in non-carotenoid phytochemicals.
This group is also known as the group of sulfur substances, because they contain this mineral:
- Indole: Foods like savoy cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, spinach, or broccoli are the richest in indole.
- Glucosinolates: Food sources in this group are crucifers, such as Brussels sprouts, purple cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, or radishes.
- Organosulfuric compounds: present in garlic.
This group of phytochemicals acts like vitamin E. Its main sources are vegetable oils, nuts, green leafy vegetables and whole grains.
Part of the phytochemicals are already synthesized by the pharmaceutical industry. However, these supplements are not a substitute for a diet rich in grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes. Don’t forget it!