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5 Phytonutrients You Get from Fruits and Vegetables and Their Health Benefits

When you bite into a fruit or vegetable, you enjoy nature’s produce at its best. Fruits and vegetables are nutrient-packed but when you add vegetables and fruits to your plate, you get more than vitamins and minerals. You also get phytonutrients. What are they?

Phytonutrients are natural chemicals in plant-based foods that have potential health benefits. In plants, phytonutrients protect the plants against predators, but they have other health rewards for humans. For example, many phytonutrients have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Research shows some support healthy immune function and may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In all, scientists have described more than 5,000 distinct phytonutrients, although there’s still more to discover about their health benefits. Plus, researchers believe there are yet undiscovered phytonutrients. What foods do you find these plant-based nutrients in, and how can you get more of them?

Phytonutrient Containing Foods

Every plant-based food, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and herbs, have phytonutrients. Have you ever noticed the rich array of colors that fruits and vegetables are cloaked with? Those colors signify unique phytonutrients. If it’s natural, color equals health benefits. Let’s look at some phytonutrients and the foods you find them in.

Anthocyanins

When you see a purple or blue fruit or vegetable, it likely contains natural chemicals called anthocyanins. Studies show anthocyanins are heart-healthy compounds. Early research finds they may lower blood pressure, improve blood vessel function, reduce oxidative damage and enhance blood sugar control. They also boost the health benefits of other phytonutrients, creating synergy.

Some of the most anthocyanin-rich foods include red cabbage, blackberries, black currants, elderberries, eggplants, black plums, and blueberries. It’s not clear how anthocyanins exert these health benefits. One theory is they may do it by altering the gut microbiome.

Sulforaphane

Sulforaphane is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, but its greatest benefits could come from its anti-cancer activity. Studies in the laboratory and animals show sulforaphane sends signals that limit the spread of cancer and encourage cancer cells to die. Some studies show foods rich in sulforaphane may reduce the risk of certain forms of cancer, including breast, prostate, and cancers of the digestive tract. Plus, a study showed that compounds in broccoli sprouts may protect against the damaging effects of some airborne pollutants that we increasingly breathe in every day.

How can you get sulforaphane in your diet? The best source is cruciferous vegetables. When you think of crucifers, broccoli may come to mind, but kale, cauliflower, cabbage, Bok choy, watercress, radishes, and kohlrabi are excellent sources too. One of the best sources of sulforaphane is immature broccoli sprouts. They may have up to 100 times more sulforaphane than mature broccoli. Broccoli sprouts are tasty on salads, and you can add them to wraps too.

Lutein and Zeaxanthin

Lutein and zeaxanthin are types of carotenoids, phytonutrients that may benefit your eyes. Research shows lutein and zeaxanthin absorb blue light that damages the retina, a light-sensitive structure in the back of your eye. Blue light contributes to retinal aging and damage and increases the risk of age-related macular degeneration. (AMD) and cataracts. AMD is one of the most common causes of visual loss related to aging.

How can you get more of these two eye-friendly phytonutrients? Orange fruits and vegetables, including summer squash, pumpkin, and carrots. Green vegetables also contain lutein and zeaxanthin, including spinach, romaine lettuce, broccoli, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts. The chlorophyll in these vegetables obscures the orange tint of the lutein and zeaxanthin. You’ll absorb these phytonutrients better if you eat them with a source of healthy fats. Olive oil is an excellent choice because it has heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.

Flavonoids

Flavonoids are abundant in various plant-based foods, including the stems, roots, bark, flowers, and flesh of some plants. They have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, but also change the activity of certain enzymes. Scientists believe they have anti-cancer potential. Among the best sources of flavonoids are red wine, dark chocolate, tea, kale, red cabbage, and berries.

Phytosterols

Phytosterols are found in the cell membranes of plants and have a structure like cholesterol. When you eat plants high in phytosterols, they compete with cholesterol for absorption from your digestive tract. Therefore, they reduce the amount of cholesterol that enters your bloodstream. Studies show that consuming phytosterols may modestly lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, the form linked with heart disease.

Eat the Rainbow

This isn’t a complete overview of phytonutrients, since there are so many classes and sub-classes, but it gives you a better idea of some that are currently the focus of research. What can you take away from it? Science supports the idea of eating the rainbow. When you eat a variety of fruits and vegetables in various shades, you get a diversity of phytonutrients that can work together to offer potential health benefits.

Guidelines recommend making about half of a meal plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. If you do this, you’ll get the benefits that phytonutrients offer, and enjoy a tasty diversity of fruits and veggies too. Enjoy!

References:

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  • “Boost Your Cholesterol-Lowering Potential With Phytosterols.” my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17368-phytosterols-sterols–stanols.
  • “Phytosterols and Phytostanols: Functional Food Cholesterol ….” 01 Jan. 2001, ift.org/news-and-publications/food-technology-magazine/issues/2001/january/features/developing-phytosterols.
  • “Phytonutrients | Nutrition.gov.” nutrition.gov/topics/whats-food/phytonutrients.
  • Jha P, Kumari S, Jobby R, Desai N, Ali A. Dietary Phytonutrients in the Prevention of Diabetes-related Complications. Curr Diabetes Rev. 2020;16(7):657-673. doi: 10.2174/1573399815666190906151319. PMID: 31490762.
  • “Anthocyanins – Structure, Molecular mass, Properties, Uses ….” https://byjus.com/chemistry/anthocyanins/.
  • Egner PA, Chen JG, Zarth AT, Ng DK, Wang JB, Kensler KH, Jacobson LP, Muñoz A, Johnson JL, Groopman JD, Fahey JW, Talalay P, Zhu J, Chen TY, Qian GS, Carmella SG, Hecht SS, Kensler TW. Rapid and sustainable detoxication of airborne pollutants by broccoli sprout beverage: results of a randomized clinical trial in China. Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2014 Aug;7(8):813-823. doi: 10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-14-0103. Epub 2014 Jun 9. PMID: 24913818; PMCID: PMC4125483.

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