The term “phytochemicals” comes from the Greek phyto (plant) and is often used interchangeably with “phytonutrients.”
Although not technically correct (our survival isn’t dependent on them like it is with vitamins), they are biologically active compounds that greatly affect health and battle disease.
These special substances prevent disease by regulating the immune and endocrine systems. There may be countless phytochemicals, each offering its own disease defense. Of these, the best-known are flavonoids, carotenoids, indoles, and isoflavones.
The vibrant colors of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices come from flavonoids, a group of antioxidants that block cellular damage caused by free radicals (the trouble makers of the particle world). This may protect against cancer and other chronic disease.
Lutein, zeaxanthin, lycopene, and beta-carotene are all cell-protective carotenoids.
Use this color guide to spot them in the produce section of your natural food store:
Lutein – a vision protector found in dark, leafy greens.
Zeaxanthin – another vision saver obtained from deep yellow-orange produce like carrots, apricots, mangoes, yellow and orange-colored peppers, pumpkin.
Lycopene – useful in preventing prostate cancer; plentiful in red foods such as tomatoes and watermelon.
Beta-carotene – the body uses it to make Vitamin A; yellow, orange and red vegetables and fruits are ample sources.
Indoles are found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. Indoles help to prevent many chronic diseases and may also stop the spread of breast cancer cells.
Isoflavones, or phytoestrogens, appear to protect against the hormone related cancers (breast, prostate, ovarian) and are abundant in beans, especially soy beans. They lower the amount of fat in your blood, and decrease the effects of menopause.
These semi-essential nutrients are not stored in the body, so it’s best to eat foods rich in phytochemicals on a regular basis. Another good reason for a varied diet abundant with multi-colored vegetables, fruits, and herbs.