Phytochemicals, also known as phytonutrients, are like your ultimate form of health insurance. They aren’t crucial for day to day survival, but when it comes to unexpected losses in your wellbeing these chemicals protect you from suffering the damages. In other words, regardless of choice we all take a chance in an unfortunate lottery for chronic diseases and in the case that your (not so lucky) number is drawn, then phytochemicals do play a role in protecting your body from heart disease and certain cancers. For example, a study in Soroko University in Beer-Sheva, Israel revealed that the combination of phytochemicals lycopene, phytoene, and phytofluene produced synergistic inhibition of prostate and certain mammary cancer cell growth. And while research is slowly revealing the science behind phytochemicals and their protective benefits, as of now, the best form of consumption of phytochemicals is through a plentiful variety of natural food sources. The main types of phytochemicals and their food sources are described below:
Carotenoids are like your body’s army team of soldiers; they tackle harmful free radicals and prevent them from damaging tissue throughout the body. Subtypes of carotenoids include alpha-carotene and beta-carotene (which can often be converted to vitamin A within the body), and lycopene which is linked to a decreased risk of prostate cancer (as was mentioned above). Most carotenoids are found in abundance in yellow-red, red, orange, and deep green vegetables and fruits like carrots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, apricots, kale, spinach, pumpkin, and tomatoes.
Glucosinolates are like border patrol officers; they scan cells during their cell division process and set off the security alarms if any cancer like cell attempts to pass through the patrol. This helps control cancer cell development and growth. Glucosinolates are found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts. Glucosinolates are responsible for the sharp odour and flavour of these vegetables.
Phytoestrogens are very similar in structure to the female sex hormone, estrogen. Because of the similar chemical structure, phytoestrogens may sometimes mimic the natural hormone, and exert estrogen like effects. Phytoestrogens are found plentiful in flaxseeds, sesame seeds, whole grains, and soy-bean products and are shown to decrease risk of endometrial cancer and bone loss.
Flavanoids also include several subtypes. For example, the subtype catechins are found in green tea and can help prevent some cancer types. Meanwhile hasperidin is a type of flavonoid found in citrus fruits (oranges, tangerines, grapefruits, etc.) which reduces inflammation in the body and helps prevent chronic diseases like asthma and hypertension. Other forms of flavonoids are often found in apples, berries, kale, and onions.
While phytochemicals cannot guarantee us the absence of diseases like cancer, atherosclerosis, hypertension, or coronary artery disease, they are definitely a promising component of nutrition. Science is in its early stages of research regarding phytonutrients and thus far diversification of foods abundant in phytochemicals is the best approach.