Phytonutrient is a word for chemicals in plants that aren’t vitamins or minerals but add to the overall benefit of veggies and fruit to the diet.
Sometimes they help us absorb vitamins and minerals better – ie they work ‘synergistically’ while other benefits come directly from the compounds themselves.
The job of phytonutrients from the plant’s side of things, can vary. Flavour and colour come from phytonutrients. They can also be plant self defence – for example to prevent a plant from being damaged by frost, deter garden pests like slugs; or even attract insects for pollination! However when we ingest them, because they’re in relatively tiny quantities, they stimulate enzyme reactions, and our immune system. This activation goes on to fight things we actually want to destroy in our bodies such as viruses, bacterial infections, and even tumours. They are also highly anti-oxidant, which helps mop up the ‘free radicals’ generated by pollution, toxins, and even our own essential metabolic processes.
What are they called?
With over 5000 different types, flavonoids are the big phytonutrient family, and within this, the one that seems to get all the attention in the media are the anthyocyanins. This is the blue pigment that makes our favourite superfoods purple! From blueberries and blackberries, through heritage carrots and purple cauli, to aubergines and red cabbage, anthocyanins are the blue kid on the block. Amusingly though, the very purplest of the veg, beetroot, is coloured by a different phytonutrient – betalains! It’s these betalains that bestow the many heart healthy benefits on our humble beetroot.
The other big name players are the curcuminoids. They have been widely studied because of the healing properties of turmeric (curcumin is one of these curcuminoids!).
There are loads more besides…
A personal favourite is the indole group, found in cruciferous veg and great for hormone health and detoxification! You’ll also know the name quercetin if you’ve been to the health food shop during hay fever season (it’s in onions, apples, lemons, and lots more). Carotenoids, the orange pigment in carrots, can be found in greens too – you only notice it once the chlorophyll has started to break down though – hence yellowing in veg. Capsaicin from peppers, piperdine from black pepper, genistein from garlic…the list is pretty much endless. Every thing that grows has phytonutrients!
Should I take them as a supplement?
If you’re eating a varied diet full of fresh, local, preferably organic veg and seasonal fruit, you’ll be getting the perfect balance of phytonutrients and vitamins anyway. However, there are some things – such as turmeric – which have specific healing properties that it’s pretty hard to get in sufficiently concentrated doses from the diet. Eating seasonally and locally is important as phytonutrients start to break down as soon as the crop is picked, so the sooner it arrives on your plate the better! But for general health on a day to day basis – no supplementation is required!