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One of the major reasons to adopt a plant-rich diet is the diversity of vitamins and minerals present in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, and grains. These vitamins and minerals are what we consider nutrients, which means they are essential to life. The term nutrient has its origin in the Latin word nūtrīre – to suckle1 its definition is: “food, or any nourishing substance assimilated by an organism, and required for growth, repair, and normal metabolism1.”

Unlocking Nature’s Power: Phytochemicals

All living organisms need nutrients to live and grow, and while plants get their nutrients from the environment, mostly the soil and atmosphere, we, animals, need to get them from the food we eat1. However, when we are talking about eating plants, they provide not only essential nutrients needed for life but also other non-nutrient bioactive compounds that can play a major role in health promotion and disease prevention2. Plants, besides primary nutritive metabolites, synthesize a wide variety of secondary metabolites known as phytochemicals3.

Basically, phytochemical is a term broadly used to encompass “plant (phyto) chemicals,” mostly referring to a diversity of compounds produced by plants, mainly for their own protection2,5. These nonnutritive chemicals are produced by plants for protection from insect infestation and microbial attack, but they also tend to be protective for humans from various illnesses such as heart diseases, cancer, and many other chronic conditions3.

More than a thousand phytochemicals have been discovered to date and these bioactive compounds are found in plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and herbs. Phytochemicals may exhibit beneficial or detrimental biological activities for the organisms ingesting them, besides contributing to the color, flavor, and aroma of plants that contain them2,4.

Their presence and secretions vary from plant to plant6. There are many phytochemicals, some of which you have probably heard or read about, like polyphenols, flavonoids, carotenoids, phytoestrogens, terpenoids, isoprenoids, phytosterols, saponins, alkaloids, dietary fibers, and certain polysaccharides4,5,6.

Phytochemicals have been consumed worldwide since the dawn of human civilization. Plants have been an essential part of human nutrition and humans have evolved with these plant compounds. Many play a determinant role in our health and vitality, through several processes, such as4,6:

Unlocking Nature’s Power: Phytochemicals
  • strong antioxidant properties
  • cell differentiation
  • increased activity of detoxifying enzymes
  • effect of DNA metabolism
  • maintenance of DNA repair
  • increase apoptosis of cancer cells
  • decrease cell proliferation
  • regulate gene transcription
  • enhance gap junction communication
  • improve immunity
  • provide protection against certain cancers
  • exhibit antimicrobial, antidiarrheal, anthelmintic, antiallergic, antispasmodic, and antiviral activities

Phytochemicals can be extracted from various sources and may have a myriad of applications namely in the development of functional foods and nutraceuticals4.

In the following weeks, we will highlight some of the most important phytochemicals and their health benefits. Stay tuned!

References

  1. Biology Online. Dictionary. Nutrient. Definition. Last updated on July 28th, 2021 https://www.biologyonline.com/dictionary/nutrient, accessed Aug 04, 2023.
  2. Huang Y, Xiao D, Burton-Freeman BM, Edirisinghe I. Chemical Changes of Bioactive Phytochemicals during Thermal Processing. Reference Module in Food Science. Elsevier. 2016. ISBN 9780081005965. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780081005965030559?via%3Dihub.
  3. Sharma BR, Kumar V, Gat Y, Kumar N, Parashar A, Pinakin DJ. Microbial maceration: a sustainable approach for phytochemical extraction. 3 Biotech. 2018 Sep;8(9):401. doi: 10.1007/s13205-018-1423-8. Epub 2018 Sep 7. PMID: 30221114; PMCID: PMC6128812.
  4. Kumar A, P N, Kumar M, Jose A, Tomer V, Oz E, Proestos C, Zeng M, Elobeid T, K S, Oz F. Major Phytochemicals: Recent Advances in Health Benefits and Extraction Method. Molecules. 2023 Jan 16;28(2):887. doi: 10.3390/molecules28020887. PMID: 36677944; PMCID: PMC9862941.
  5. Anshuman KP. Recent Frontiers of Phytochemicals. Chapter 29 – Phytochemicals: an immune booster against the pathogens. Editor(s): Pati S, Sarkar T, Lahiri D. Elsevier. 2023; 501-509. ISBN 9780443191435. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780443191435000098?via%3Dihub.
  6. Thakur M, Singh K, Khedkar R. Functional and Preservative Properties of Phytochemicals. 11 – Phytochemicals: Extraction process, safety assessment, toxicological evaluations, and regulatory issues. Editor(s): Prakash B. Academic Press. 2020; 341-361. ISBN 9780128185933. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-818593-3.00011-7.