By ANGELA SCHRODER
Q: What are phytochemicals?
A: The term phytochemical, or phytonutrient, represents a group of chemicals that naturally occur in plants and protect them against bacteria, viruses and fungi.
Phytochemicals are found in fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods, such as whole grains, nuts, beans and tea. The actions of phytochemicals vary by color and type of food.
Although phytochemicals can act as antioxidants, which are substances that inhibit the oxidation process and protect against free radicals, non-phytochemical compounds like vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium are considered antioxidants as well.
Q: What are the functions of phytochemicals and which foods contain them?
A: Although thousands of phytochemicals have been identified thus far, there are a select few that have been more extensively studied and are better understood by researchers. These include B-carotene, lutein, lycopene and diallyl sulfide.
According to research, B-carotene may neutralize free radicals that damage cells and boost antioxidant defense. It is found in carrots, dark orange fruits, butternut squash and cantaloupe.
The compound lutein plays a role in protecting eyes from oxidation and is also being investigated for protecting against colon, breast, lung and skin cancer. It can be found in deep green vegetables, kale, spinach, collards, corn, eggs and citrus.
Lycopene protects prostate health by reducing the risk of prostate cancer and may also aid in preserving bone health. Try tomato products, guava, pink grapefruit and watermelon to add more of this compound to your diet.
Lastly, diallyl sulfides found in onions, garlic, scallions, leeks and chives help promote heart health and boost the enzymes that benefit the immune system.
Q: Are there potential health benefits to consuming foods rich in phytochemicals?
A: Research indicates that once phytochemicals are consumed, they have a positive effect on the chemical processes in the body.
There is some evidence that certain phytochemicals may help prevent the formation of potential carcinogens, or substrates that cause cancer; block the action of carcinogens on their target organs or tissue; or act on cells to suppress cancer development.
In addition, evidence suggests that consuming foods rich in phytochemicals, like fruits, vegetables, and grains may not only help prevent against certain types of cancer, but also heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes as well as other chronic diseases. Reaping the benefits of phytochemicals can only be done by consuming them through foods.
Schroder is clinical nutrition manager for the Blanchard Valley Health System. Questions for Blanchard Valley Health System experts may be sent to Weekend Doctor, The Courier, P.O. Box 609, Findlay, OH 45839.
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