Phytonutrients

Medically reviewed by Natalie Olsen, RD, LD, ACSM EP-C on January 2, 2018Written by Kiara Anthony on January 2, 2018

What are phytonutrients?

Phytonutrients are natural chemicals or compounds produced by plants. They keep plants healthy, protecting them from insects and the sun.

They can be found in:

Phytonutrients also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can help support a healthy human body.

There are thousands of phytonutrients found in plants and related foods. Some of the most common phytonutrients are:

Phytonutrient health benefits

While their antioxidant qualities lead the pack in healthful benefits, phytonutrients are also known for other characteristics:

Types of phytonutrients

Phytonutrients are available in supplement form. However, they are best consumed as nutrient-rich foods.

Supplements don’t provide all the necessary nutrients to sustain the body and, in rare cases of high dosage, can be toxic.

Carotenoids

Carotenoids are pigments in plants that are responsible for the bright-colored hues of vegetables and fruits. There are more than 600 carotenoids, and they must be consumed through foods and sources of fat. Some common types of carotenoids include:

  • alpha-carotene
  • beta-carotene
  • beta-cryptoxanthin
  • lutein
  • lycopene
  • zeaxanthin

Carotenoids act as antioxidants, and some can be converted into vitamin A. They support immune system function, eye health, and reduce your risk of cancer. Some foods rich in carotenoids are:

Ellagic acid

Ellagic acid is a phytochemical known for reducing cancer risk and lowering cholesterol. Ellagic acid has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The highest levels of ellagic acid are present in raspberries. Other foods rich in this compound include:

Resveratrol

Resveratrol is found predominantly in grapes — specifically, the grape skin — and wine. This compound supports cardiovascular and cognitive health. Resveratrol has also been associated with increased cerebral blood flow.

Resveratrol can be found in other foods:

Flavonoids

Flavonoids are one of the largest groups of phytonutrients. This compound is rich in antioxidant properties and anticancer activity. There are many subgroups of flavonoids, including:

  • flavones
  • anthocyanins
  • flavanones
  • isoflavones
  • flavonols

Some foods rich in flavonoid compounds are:

Phytoestrogens

These compounds are associated with reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis.

Phytoestrogen mimics estrogen in the body, which may be beneficial for women in relieving discomfort from hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms.

However, some studies have shown phytoestrogens may disrupt hormone function.

Be mindful of your intake of phytoestrogens and get to know how they may impact your body, as everyone is different.

Foods rich in phytoestrogen compounds include:

Glucosinolates

Glucosinolates are compounds found predominantly in cruciferous vegetables. They are known for helping to regulate inflammation, metabolic function, and stress responses. Glucosinolates have also been associated with cancer prevention. Studies in rats and mice found that the compounds that form from broken down glucosinololates inactivate carcinogens and protect cells from DNA damage. However, this has not been proven in human studies. Common foods rich in glucosinolates include:

Outlook

Increasing the amount of phytonutrient-rich foods in your diet can boost antioxidant activity and your immune health.

Although these compounds are available in supplement form, they are best consumed through natural foods, specifically fruits and vegetables.

Before deciding to alter your diet, discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor.

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