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Food for Life - Phytochemicals

DK PublishingDK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
Photo: Green tea - A potent phytochemical called polyphenol, thought to lower the risk of stomach cancer, is found in green tea. © Provided by DKBooks Green tea - A potent phytochemical called polyphenol, thought to lower the risk of stomach cancer, is found in green tea.

Green tea - A potent phytochemical called polyphenol, thought to lower the risk of stomach cancer, is found in green tea.


Protective chemicals found in foods of plant origin.

Phytochemicals, also known as phytonutrients, are naturally occurring protective chemicals that are found in foods of plant origin (phyto is derived from the Greek word for plant). Studies show that there may be as many as 100 different phytochemicals in just one serving of vegetables.

Phytochemicals and health

Evidence has shown that people who consume a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and therefore in phytochemicals, have a lower incidence of many disorders, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Phytochemicals have an antioxidant effect that protects cells from cancer and cardiovascular disease, as well as from urinary tract infections, rheumatoid arthritis, and reduced immunity. Make sure you eat at least five portions of fruits and vegetables a day to get plenty of phytochemicals.

What are the different types of phytochemicals?

There are hundreds of phytochemicals found in foods of plant origin. The key benefits of some of the most well-known phytochemicals are listed below:


These are helpful in the absorption of vitamin C and protect it from oxidation (damage). Citrus fruits, such as lemons, limes, grapefruit, and oranges, are particularly good sources of bioflavonoids.


These may protect against cardiovascular disease. Carotenoids are found in carrots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash.


Found in vegetables, these help the liver in its detoxification function. They help regulate certain white blood cells involved in immunity. They may also help reduce tumor growth, particularly in the breast, liver, colon, lung, stomach, and esophagus.


These give onions and leeks their pungent odor. They stimulate anticancer enzymes, and slow the formation of blood clots. They are also known to boost the immune system.


These protect the body against cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. Phytoestrogens may also slow the progression of cancer. They are found in soy products and flaxseeds.


These may protect the body from inflammation, allergic reactions, and viral infections.


These phytochemicals are thought to help against breast cancer.


These may inhibit estrogen-promoted cancers and lower high levels of blood cholesterol.


Found in the peel of citrus fruits, these phytochemicals appear to protect lung tissue.


Found in tomatoes, this may protect against cancers of the cervix, stomach, bladder, colon, and prostate, and cardiovascular disease.

Para-coumaric acid

This phytochemical helps prevent cancer by interfering with the development of cancer-causing nitrosamines in the stomach.

Phenols and polyphenol

These protect plants from chemical damage and perform the same function in humans. Found in green tea, polyphenol is thought to protect against stomach cancer.


These include stanols, which can reduce the absorption of cholesterol from the diet and therefore lower cholesterol levels in the blood. Stanols are found in soy products and fortified margarines.


These may block action of cancer-causing factors (carcinogens) and may inhibit hormone-related cancers such as ovarian cancer.

Good sources


These are found in all foods of plant origin. The following foods listed below are thought to contain particularly beneficial phytochemicals:

Whole grains


Brussels sprouts


Citrus fruits

Dark-green leafy vegetables


Green tea

Herbs and spices





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