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They aren’t vitamins, minerals, fiber, amino acids or enzymes, yet they are the latest weapons in the fight against disease. So what exactly are phytochemicals? They are the natural chemical compounds found in all plants; they protect against disease and promote health, and there are thousands of them!

Phytochemical simply means foods with the ingredients thought to prevent disease. There is no doubt that food is what provides building blocks for our body’s healing mechanism. But there is more to food than just the vitamins and minerals that are essential to build and maintain optimum health. Phytochemicals, Phytonutrients, Phytofoods, Functional foods, are the next level in achieving overall good health.

Nutritionally high-powered foods aren’t new. But science’s added knowledge about the disease-preventing components these foods contain is “new.” The National Cancer Institute has launched a multimillion-dollar study of phytochemicals. Scientists have already discovered 30 phytochemicals that might help prevent cancer.

Phytochemicals are synthesized in plants that have been allowed to vine-ripen. Foods harvested green do not have these synthesized phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are synthesized in plants to protect the ripe plants from the damage caused by the ultraviolet rays from sunlight. These same chemicals have been proven to have a profound effect on the human immune system.

Although in the past, phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables were classified as vitamins, nowadays they are grouped according to their similar protective functions and similar chemical characteristics.

These groups are:

Terpenes, which are found in green foods, soy products and grains, comprise one of the largest classes of phytonutrients.

Cartenoids consist of bright yellow, orange and red plant pigments found in vegetables such as tomatoes, parsley, oranges, pink grapefruit, spinach and red palm oil.

Limonoids are a subclass found in citrus fruit peels.

Phytosterols occur in most plants, highly concentrated in the seeds of the plants.

Phenols are the blue, blue-red and violet colorations seen in berries, grapes and purple eggplant.

Flavonoids are a phenol subclass and they enhance the effects of ascorbate-vitamin C.

Anthocyanidins or “flavonals” provide cross links that connect and strengthen the intertwined strands of collagen protein.

Catechins, Gallic Acids, differ slightly in chemical structure of other flavonoids, but share their chemoprotective properties. Catechins are found in green tea, and are thought to be responsible for the protective benefits of this beverage.

Isoflavons of this phenol subclass come from beans and other legumes and are a distant cousin of flavonoids.

Thiols are a sulfur-containing class of phytonutrients and are present in garlic and cruciferous vegetables.

Glucosinolates are also found in cruciferous vegetables, and are powerful activators of liver detoxification enzymes.

Allylic Sulfides are a thiol subclass and is present in garlic, onions, leeks, shallots and chives.

Indoles are a subclass that interact with vitamin C, and are found in vegetables high in vitamin C.

Isoprenoids neutralize free radicals in a unique way. They grab free radicals and pass them off to other antioxidants.

Tocotrienols and Tocopherols naturally occur in grains and palm oils.

Lipoic Acid and Ubiquinone are important antioxidants that work to extend the effects of other antioxidants.

What does all this new information boil down to? That Mom was right when said, “eat your vegetables, they’re good for you.”

Foods and herbs that demonstrate the highest anticancer protection are: garlic, soybeans, cabbage, ginger, licorice, and the umbelliferous vegetables like carrots, celery, cilantro, parsley, and parsnips.

Foods with a bit less protection include onions, flax, citrus, turmeric, cruciferous vegetables, solanaceous vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers, brown rice and whole wheat. A measure of anti-cancer activity was also found in oats, barley, mints, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, basil, cucumber, cantaloupe and berries.

Obtaining maximum benefits of phytochemicals is as easy as including fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs in your daily diet. For optimal health, eat at least 5 to 9 servings of fruit and vegetables and whole grains daily, and include soy foods regularly. Give those mighty nutrients, phytochemicals, the chance to do their job.