Phytochemicals are chemical compounds occurring naturally in plants. They have protective or disease preventive properties. The word ‘phyto’ means plant in Greek. They are the natural compounds found in the fruits and vegetables with each type of fruits containing hundreds of phytochemicals. In plants, phytochemicals are responsible for the color and smell. The smell of garlic and the color of blueberries originate from the phytochemicals present in them.
Phytochemicals do not provide nutrition to plants. But phytochemicals offer protection against fungi, bacteria, viruses and cell damage. Fruits, vegetables including onions, soy products, cabbage, nuts, berries, walnuts, corn, legumes and whole grains contain phytochemicals that shield tender buds and sprouts from predators.
There are over 1000 known phytochemicals. Researchers have proved that phytochemicals can be used in humans for treatment of diseases. Hippocrates is known to have prescribed willow tree leaves to treat fever. Phtochemicals are beneficial due to features like antioxidant and ant-bacterial effects, enzyme stimulation capabilities and hormone controlling potential.
The different phytochemicals include allium, flavonoids, indoles, ellegic acid, isoflavones and plant sterols. Allium and plant sterols are known to reduce cholesterol levels protecting the heart. Ellegic acid protects the brain. Flavonoids can fight heart disease, serious gastrointestinal or allergic problems. Indoles play an important role in blocking the growth of cancer cells. Isoflavones improve bone density and lowers cholesterol levels.
Some of the better-known phytochemicals include beta carotene and other carotenoids, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), folic acid, and vitamin E. They have anti oxidant properties. Researches reveal that they are also used in treatment of human diseases like certain types of cancer and heart disease. They are known to be safe when eaten only as a part of balanced diet. While taken in larger amounts, they may have side effects.
Our body gets enough phytochemicals from our daily diet. Vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grain contain them. When refined or cooked, major portion of phtochemicals is lost. Raw fruits and vegetables of different colors are recommended as part of daily diet for meeting body requirement of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.