They’re not vitamins or minerals, but they prevent cancer, possibly boost the immune system, protect against aging and heart disease, and come in almost one million forms in a diverse array of natural foods – from fruits, vegetables, garlic, and soybeans to walnuts, wheat germ, red wine, and green tea. They are also called phytonutrients of neutraceuticals.
Phytochemicals have completely changed the way we view foods. It’s no longer appropriate to evaluate a food solely on its vitamin, mineral, and fiber content. For example, a phytochemical called gingerol in ginger is a potent antioxidant, the lignan in whole grains enhances fiber’s protective effects against colon cancer, lycopene in watermelon lowers heart disease and cancer risk, and phenolic compounds in green tea are major players in protecting against heart disease. These and other phytochemicals work as teams with nutrients and fiber as disease fighters. That’s why whole food – not pills, potions, or processed products – are the best source, since it will be decades before we understand optimal doses or how phytochemicals and nutrients interact.
How much? We don’t know what an optimal dose is when it comes to phytochemicals, but we do know that the more phytochemical-rich colorful fruits, vegetables, and whole grains you eat, the more protection you get. Just one more reason to load every plate with lots of colorful fruits and vegetables, choose 100% whole grains over refined grains, and include soy, nuts, red wine, cocoa powder, and other real foods in every meal.