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What Are Phytochemicals?

What are phytochemicals, where do you find them and do you actually need them?

Phytochemicals, commonly known as phytonutrients, are naturally occurring compounds found in plants that are associated with many health benefits. Although these compounds are not essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals, they can contribute to overall well-being and may have protective effects against certain diseases due to antioxidant and toxin removal properties.

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We get more than just vitamins and minerals from plants

Humans and Phytochemicals

Humans have known that plants contain special chemicals that improve health and prevent disease for more than 1000 years. In fact the exploration of phytochemicals has a history that dates back to ancient civilizations:

Ancient Civilizations: In the traditional medicine systems of ancient civilizations, such as Ayurveda in India and Traditional Chinese Medicine, plants were used for medicinal purposes. People observed the effects of various plant compounds on health and well-being, although the specific identification of phytochemicals was not yet established.

Middle Ages and Renaissance: During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, herbalism became more organised and was a profession in its own right, as plant-based remedies were documented in herbal texts. However, the understanding of specific phytochemicals was still limited, with ineffective medicines being blamed on the evil doings of the taker.

18th and 19th Centuries: The isolation and identification of specific plant compounds began to advance in the 18th and 19th centuries. Chemists and scientists were developing equipment and methods for isolating active components from medicinal plants. For example, morphine was isolated from opium in the early 19th century.

20th Century: The 20th century marked a significant leap in the study of phytochemicals. Advances in analytical techniques, such as chromatography and spectroscopy, allowed scientists to identify and study compounds in greater detail. This led to the isolation and identification of many bioactive plant compounds, including alkaloids, flavonoids, and phenolic acids.

Nutrition and Health Research: In the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, research on phytochemicals expanded, particularly in the context of nutrition and health. Studies started to investigate the potential health benefits of phytochemical-rich diets, including their role in preventing chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Current Era: Today, phytochemical research continues to grow, with a focus on understanding the mechanisms of action of these chemicals and any potential therapeutic applications that they may have. The interest in plant-based diets and the health benefits associated with phytochemical-rich foods has led to increased awareness and research in this field. As scientific methods and technologies have advanced, our understanding of phytochemicals and their potential health benefits has deepened. Ongoing research continues to uncover new compounds and explore their diverse effects on human health.

Different Phytochemcials

There are thousands of different phytochemicals, and they can be classified into various categories by chemical structure, the plants that they are found in ore properties that they may have. These categories include:

  • Flavonoids: Found in fruits, vegetables, tea, and red wine. They have antioxidant properties and may help protect cells from damage.

  • Carotenoids: These include beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein, found in colorful fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids have antioxidant properties and can be converted into vitamin A in the body.

  • Glucosinolates: Present in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. They are known for their potential anti-cancer properties.

  • Phenolic acids: Found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. They have antioxidant properties and may contribute to cardiovascular health.

  • Alkaloids: These include caffeine, nicotine, and morphine, and are found in various plant sources. Alkaloids can have stimulant or sedative effects on the human body.

  • Saponins: Present in legumes, whole grains, and some vegetables. They may have immune-boosting and cholesterol-lowering effects.

  • Terpenoids (or terpenes): Found in essential oils of many plants. They can have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

Phytochemicals are believed to contribute to the health-promoting properties of a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other plant-based foods. Including a variety of colourful and nutrient-dense plant foods in your diet is a good way to ensure you get a range of phytochemicals with potential health benefits.


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