As Simple as ‘A Is for Apple'

Fruits and vegetables produce complex phytonutrients.

Published in the St. George Magazine 2005

In the last five years, health science has coined a new term. A word to describe age-old compounds ever present but only recently recognized. What are these new compounds attracting so much attention? Phytonutrients.

Phytonutrients, also called phytochemicals or functional foods, are newly discovered chemicals found in plants. They are not part of the carbohydrates, fats (lipids), proteins, water or minerals found in plants, but are a separate compound. The root "phyto" is Greek for "plant." Literally, "phytochemical" simply means "plant-chemical." Phytochemicals work in a plant to help it survive in the environment. Phytochemicals protect the plant from natural invaders such as parasites, insects, free radicals and disease. Scientists have discovered that the same chemicals that work for the plants survival perform the same function in the human body.

Looking at an apple sitting on the table, it seems rather simplistic. A, is for apple — preschool knowledge, right? We've never been so wrong. If only for a moment your eyes worked as an electron microscope, your mind would quickly open to a whole new reality. There are hundreds of thousands of different phytochemicals working synergistically to form the immaculate chemistry that has designed the taste, color and smell of this delicious food source. Once eaten, this same microscopic miracle goes to work in your own body.

For example, when a person eats spinach they also eat the chlorogenic acid found in the spinach. This acid acts as a pesticide, keeping the bugs from destroying the vegetable. In the human body this acid also acts as a pesticide, keeping harmful stomach and intestinal bugs from damaging the body.

Perhaps the most astonishing point of interest amid these grand discoveries is that by obtaining these chemicals through the consumption of fruits and vegetables, only positive effects will be had. However, if taken from their proper balance - extracted and taken alone as a vitamin or drug — there are potentially harmful side effects.

The recent discovery of phytochemicals has made it possible for scientists to determine with greater accuracy how fruits and vegetables maintain health. Phytochemicals exhibit many health-promoting properties. Phytochemicals found in broccoli and garlic produce enzymes that modify and detoxify many toxic chemicals, including some that appear to cause cancer. Another phytochemical found in garlic has been shown to inhibit cholesterol production. Phytochemicals in spinach have been found to decrease and prevent cataracts, macular degeneration and night blindness. Phytochemicals in an orange, as is well known, increase immune system function. Oranges also possess phytochemicals that are anti sunburn, antifungal and antiallergenic. The list goes on. Every existing fruit and vegetable contains literally thousands of different phytochemicals — each possessing different properties,

Researchers are finding that phytonutrients are important to the body in many ways. They reduce the risk of many diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and urinary tract infections. Not only may phytochemicals help slow the aging process, but they also prevent diseases often associated with old age such as cataracts and osteoporosis. No wonder people are eager to learn more and increase their intake of fruits and vegetables to receive the myriad benefits provided from phytonutrients.

There is no single plant that is a source for all the necessary phytonutrients. Different plants produce and utilize different kinds and quantities of phytochemicals.

The field of phytonutrition and the study of phytochemicals has revolutionized our understanding of how quality of life can be improved by monitoring our food intake. It is becoming increasingly clear that phytochemicals are an important factor in nutrition. There are thousands of known phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables and an untold number yet to be isolated and characterized.

Medicine and science have been searching for centuries for the newest and best in nutrition and healing ... ironically, it's been here all along.