Phytonutrients are essential nutrients found only in plants. They play key roles in plant growth, development, reproduction and defense against pests and diseases. Plants need these vital compounds to survive; without them they will wither or even die from lack of nutrition. Without phytonutrients plants cannot grow properly. A deficiency in any one of these compounds can cause death within days or weeks if not detected early enough.
The four major groups of phytonutrients are: carotenoids (red, orange and yellow pigments), flavonols (flavonoid acids) and anthocyanins (blue pigments). Carotenoids include beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin. Flavonol antioxidants include quercetin, kaempferol and myricetin. Anthocyanins include cyanidin, xanthan gum and iprodione.
Carotenoids are the most abundant group of phytonutrients. These pigments are present in all fruits and vegetables. They have antioxidant properties that protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules with no known function other than to damage living tissue. Free radicals can be triggered by excessive sun exposure, cigarette smoke and other toxins in the environment.
The two most plentiful of these carotenoids are lycopene and beta-carotene. Lycopene is responsible for the red coloring of tomatoes and carrots. Beta-carotene gives sweet potatoes and pumpkins their orange color. Carotenoids are fat soluble and must be consumed with dietary fats to be absorbed by the body.
Flavonoids are a group of phytonutrients with strong antioxidant activity. They are responsible for giving fruits and vegetables their rich blue, red, purple and yellow colors. The most common flavonoids in the American diet are quercetin, kaempferol and myricetin. Flavonols improve the body’s ability to heal wounds, fight infection and resist disease.
They also have the potential to lower the risk of cancer. People who eat the most flavonoids have significantly lower rates of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.
Anthocyanins are water-soluble pigments that make the leaves appear red in fall. They also give fruits and vegetables such as radishes, blackberries and purple cabbage their rich color. The antioxidant activity of anthocyanins is up to five times greater than that of vitamin E. They are also powerful anti-inflammatories and free radical scavengers.
The antioxidant activity in these flavonoids reduces the risk of certain cancers, including lung, colon and prostate cancer. It also fights atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, and lowers the risk of heart attack.
Phytonutrients are readily available in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, especially colorful reds, oranges and yellows. Other good sources include greens, beans, peas, berries, tomatoes and onions.
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Most people don’t. You can find out How to Make the Switch to More Plants to increase your intake of phytonutrients by following these tips. download a wallet card here.
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Some of the top food sources for some of the most common antioxidants are
Vitamin E: sunflower seeds, almonds, peanut butter, spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, sweet potatoes and turnip greens.
Beta-carotene: carrots, cantaloupes, apricots, pumpkin, winter squash, sweet potatoes, red peppers and broccoli.
Vitamin C: strawberries, bell peppers, broccoli, kale, kiwis, papayas, oranges, lemons, grapefruit and cauliflower.
Quercetin: tea, onions, green peppers, apples and red grapes.
Lycopene: watermelon, red tomatoes, pink grapefruit and guava.
Flavonoids: blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, black beans, red wine and celery.
Antioxidant Food Tips
Fruits and vegetables provide the most nutrients when eaten raw or cooked at low temperatures. Steaming, grilling or lightly sautéing are good preparation techniques. When boiling vegetables they lose Vitamins A, C and E as well as phytonutrients.
Cook in bulk and portion out for the week.
Plan your meals around foods with the highest antioxidant content. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Include as wide a variety of vegetables and fruits in your diet as possible. There are antioxidants in all of them, but colorful ones have the most.
During the fall and winter eat an abundant amount of orange and dark green leafy vegetables. Reds, oranges and yellow fruits and vegetables have the most carotenoids.
In warmer months, eat melons, berries, peaches and apricots for their antioxidant protection.
Sprouts have up to five times as many antioxidants as the mature vegetable or fruit.
Enjoy at least one serving of fresh garlic per week. It has three times more antioxidants than an equal amount of onions, and has been shown to lower cholesterol.
Include legumes such as dried beans, peas and lentils in your diet. One serving per day is the recommendation for a healthy diet.
Don’t overcook your food. Overcooking can destroy up to 97 percent of the antioxidants in vegetables and 75 percent of those in fruit.
You can find out which fruits and vegetables have the most antioxidants by following this link (PDF).
You can also use the searchable database below to find out which fruits and vegetables have the most of a particular nutrient.
Search our database of nutritional information on fruits, vegetables and more.
Choose antioxidant content to sort.
From The World’s Healthiest Foods.org
Eat your way to better health with phytochemicals
by J.I. Rodale
Most people think of the protection provided by vitamins and minerals, but there’s another class of protective compounds in foods that is just as essential in promoting good health: the phytochemicals. The word “phyto” means plant, so these are chemicals found in plants. We used to call them vitamins once, but when it turned out that not all of them played a role in preventing a deficiency disease (rickets, for example), they got their own category.
There are many different kinds of phytochemicals. Not only are there many kinds; there are many different ways of classifying them. There are probably in the neighborhood of a hundred different ones that have been isolated and identified. Some, like the carotenoids and the vitamin C complex, you’ve heard of.
Others are just being discovered.
We know that certain groups of phytochemicals work together in plants to protect them against predators (us, for example). They also work together in our bodies in a cooperative way to protect against disease and to keep us alive.
The phytochemical group that gets the most publicity these days are the antioxidants.
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Controlled atmosphere preserves quality and phytonutrients in wild rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) by A Martínez-Sánchez, A Marín, R Llorach… – Postharvest Biology and …, 2006 – Elsevier
Kevin Spelman, PhD: Phytonutrients and Mitochondrial Health by C Gustafson – Integrative Medicine, 2019 – search.proquest.com
Category Archives: Phytonutrients by METH DIET, EILIN WOMEN – theeverydayrd.com
Health Benefits by APD Herb – whfoods.org
Phytonutrients-the natural drugs of the future by T Gibbs – Natural products: essential resources for human …, 2007 – books.google.com
A global study using PANAS (PA and NA) scales to measure consumer emotions associated with aromas of phytonutrient supplements by C Kuesten, P Chopra, J Bi, HL Meiselman – Food Quality and Preference, 2014 – Elsevier
Phytonutrient diet supplementation promotes beneficial Clostridia species and intestinal mucus secretion resulting in protection against enteric infection by M Wlodarska, BP Willing, DM Bravo, BB Finlay – Scientific Reports, 2015 – nature.com
Vegetable, fruit, and phytonutrient consumption patterns in Taiwan by WH Pan, NH Yeh, RY Yang, WH Lin, WC Wu… – Journal of food and drug …, 2018 – Elsevier