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Phytonutrients - What are they and why do we need them?

The words phytonutrients or phytochemicals have recently popped up in and around health foods and supplements, but with the rapidly evolving fitness industry, it can be very difficult to keep up with the latest science and trends.  That’s why we want to shed a little light on what phytonutrients are and where they belong in your diet.

What are They?

Phytonutrients and phytochemicals are the same thing, simply coined differently. Phyto- is the Greek term for plants; therefore, plant-nutrients or -chemicals. These are all-natural substances created by every living plant on the planet. This includes grains, legumes, tree nuts, fruits, vegetables and even things you drink like tea and coffee. Plants produce phytochemicals to help them survive. There are thousands of different types which protect living flora and fauna from disease, insects, fungus, UV rays and other threats. They are comparable to our immune systems which could be why they are so good for us!

Phytonutrients are not like macro and micro nutrients, fats, proteins, carbs, vitamins and minerals. We can actually survive without them, but it may be more difficult to stay healthy and have long lives without them. Essentially, phytonutrients improve your body and quality of life. They can be confusing simply due to the incredible varieties that exist. If you remember a bit of your high school biology, phytonutrients are the chemical compound or result of a plant. Every single plant has a different bioactive mix. More than 25,000 different phytonutrients have been discovered, and each plant has its own specific combination.

Different Types of Phytochemicals

 Phytonutrients have been broken down into classes, some of which you may recognize like:

  • Chlorophyll
  • Phenols
  • Capsaicin
  • Peperine

Others sound a bit more obsure:

  • Betalains
  • Indoles
  • Organosulfides
  • Terpenes
  • Triterpenes

If you remember taxonomic classification, things in the world of biology are categorized like a funnel with a wide label at the top to cover it all, like phytonutrients or phytochemicals and then trickling down to more specific and individualized groups.

The above classes are further broken down into dozens of different groups which are more familiar and those groups are then split into hundreds of individual chemical nutrients. These groups contain the phytonutrients you are most likely to find in health studies and listed on your supplements:

  • Carotenoids – lycopene and carotene
  • Polyphenol – Resveratrol
  • Curcuminoids – curcumin
  • Flavonoids – quercetin and catechin
  • Lignans – secoisolariciresinol, enterolactone, sesamin
  • Sulfides – Allicin and S-allyl cysteine
  • Tocopherol - d-alpha, d-beta, d-gamma, and d-delta forms of vitamin E

This is a very broad look and definition, but if you want to explore it further, many studies are widely available online. For those that do not need all the science, here are the reasons you should eat more phytonutrients and where to find them on your plate.

Why We Should Eat More of Them

So just how does the chemical immunity of a plant help your own immune system? That answer is not fully fleshed out by science simply because every plant is different, every human is different and how the two sets of genetics interact is unique. What they have been able to say indefinitely is that phytonutrients as a whole play a significant role in disease prevention, reduction in inflammation, antioxidant protection and overall immune system support.

Let’s take a look at a few that have been noted for key importance.

Phytonutrients to Add to Your Diet

Carotenoids are what give fruits and vegetables their bright red, yellow and orange colorings like carrots, bell peppers, tomatoes and sweet potatoes. This group contains nutrients such as lycopene and carotene which are powerful antioxidants and help your body fight against free radicals. Your body can convert different types of carotene vitamin A which supports your immune system. Lycopene has been shown to help prevent several types of cancer and protect the heart. While lutein is directly connected with ocular health.

Curcuminoids have been made famous by the restorative effects of the curcumin in turmeric. They are what produce the bright yellow color. Curcumin is being studied as an effective anit-inflammatory and antioxidant to benefit those prone to or suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

Flavonoids are another common group containing popular phytonutrients such as quercetin, most often consumed in leafy vegetables, and catechins, frequently associated with dark chocolate and green tea. They are both in the subgroup of flavonoids called flavanols and have been directly linked to a decreased chance of cancer and cardiovascular disease. They have also been studied geographically because of the longer lifespans of people whose diets are rich in flavonoids.

So many of the phytonutrient groups are fascinating and worth looking into like resveratrol in grape skins and wine, ellagic acid in dark berries, glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables and on and on. But there is one more group worthy of a close look here, lignans.

Lignans are phytoestrogens, another phytochemical that can mimic estrogen in your body creating similar effects. Studies are still being held, but so far results have been optimistic that lignans may help lower the risk of endometrial cancer and hormone related cancers as well as osteoporosis. Lignans can be found in certain fruits and vegetables like strawberries and broccoli, but they have high concentrations in seeds and whole grains. To up this particular phytoestrogen in your diet eat more flaxseeds. They are an incredibly rich source.

How to Eat More Phytonutrients

Phytochemicals are what give plants their rich, dark colors and their pungent flavors and smells. When adding more to your diet, opt for a large variety of colors and add in numerous herbs and spices. If a drastic change in eating habits is not workable right now, opt for phytonutrient rich supplements. Terra Origin uses Earth-based, ancient remedies to heal the body and keep you healthy. Take a look at the Fruit Nutrient powders or the Greens Superfood powders. Both options contain a wide variety of different phytonutrient combinations that are as easy as one level scoop!