Phytochemicals are the chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants (phyto means “plant” in Greek), giving them their deep hues and often delicious smells. Think of the rich reds of a ripe tomato or the sharp, yet enticing smell of garlic. While phytochemicals are considered valuable to a healthy lifestyle and diet, many are not considered essential nutrients. Studies into the benefits of phytochemicals are evaluating and considering the potential to affect diseases such as cancer, stroke and metabolic syndromes.
Some of the more often discussed and cited phytochemicals include beta carotene and other carotenoids, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), folic acid, and vitamin E.
Phytochemicals are broken down into several different subgroups including polyphenols, flavonoids and antioxidants. When you hear the simplified statement to “eat a rainbow on your plate”, it’s in reference to the wide variety of phytochemicals available in richly colored fruits and vegetables, and even nuts and grains. The rich orange hue of a carrot, for example, is evidence that it contains more than 100 phytochemicals.
Our eyes don’t lie. Those rich and robust colors entice us to eat these fruits and vegetables because they are so nutrient dense. So pile your plate high with phytochemicals and reap the health benefits.