Phytonutrients or Phytochemicals

Phytochemicals or Phytonutrients are chemical compounds such as beta-carotene that occur naturally in plants. The term is generally used to refer to those chemicals that may affect health, but are not yet established as essential nutrients. While there is abundant scientific and government support for recommending diets rich in fruits and vegetables, there is only limited evidence that health benefits are due to specific phytochemicals.

Phytochemicals have been used as drugs for millennia. For example, Hippocrates may have prescribed willow tree leaves to abate fever. Salicin, having anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, was originally extracted from the bark of the white willow tree and later synthetically produced became the staple over-the-counter drug called Aspirin. There is evidence from laboratory studies that phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of cancer, possibly due to dietary fibers, polyphenol antioxidants and anti-inflammatory effects. Specific phytochemicals, such as fermentable dietary fibers, are allowed limited health claims by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

An important cancer drug, Taxol (paclitaxel), is a phytochemical initially extracted and purified from the Pacific yew tree.

Among phytochemicals from edible plants with promise for deterring disease, diindolylmethane, from Brassica vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts) is being tested against recurring respiratory papillomatosis tumors (caused by the human papilloma virus), is in Phase III clinical trials for cervical dysplasia (a precancerous condition caused by the human papilloma virus) and is in several clinical trials for prostate cancer.

Some phytochemicals with physiological properties may be elements rather than complex organic molecules. Abundant in many fruits and vegetables, selenium, for example, is involved with major metabolic pathways, including thyroid hormone metabolism and immune function. Particularly, it is an essential nutrient and cofactor for the enzymatic synthesis of glutathione, an endogenous antioxidant.

Phytochemicals in freshly harvested plant foods may be destroyed or removed by modern processing techniques, possibly including cooking. For this reason, industrially processed foods likely contain fewer phytochemicals and may thus be less beneficial than unprocessed foods. Absence or deficiency of phytochemicals in processed foods may contribute to increased risk of preventable diseases.

Interestingly, a converse example may exist in which lycopene, a phytochemical present in tomatoes, is either unchanged in content or made more concentrated by processing to juice or paste, maintaining good levels for bioavailability.

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