You may have heard of many people who’ve taken up a plant-based diet. You may even come across nutritionists and dieticians who recommend adopting more plant-based foods in your diet for health improvements. The main reason behind this is the fact that plant foods are packed with all the vital nutrients your body needs, including carbohydrates, plant proteins, dietary fiber and even phytonutrients.

Phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals, are the chemicals produced by plants for them to grow and stay healthy. These phytochemicals protect the plants from insect attacks and ultraviolet rays. Scientists have found that there are tens of thousands of types of phytonutrients and that the thousands that have been identified until now are just a fraction of the entirety of this group of chemicals.

Because they are found in all plant-based foods, phytonutrients can be consumed by humans and may even benefit them. These phytonutrients have disease-preventing potential and hundreds of them have been identified as having antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. All the colourful fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, teas and whole grains are rich in phytonutrients.

Each phytonutrient that scientists know about today come from a variety of sources, may have many subtypes and have different proposed effects on and benefits for your body. Here is everything you need to know about phytonutrients with identified benefits for humans.

  1. Takeaways
  2. Are phytonutrients and antioxidants the same?
  3. Types of phytonutrients
  4. Benefits of phytonutrients
  5. Phytonutrient supplements
  6. Side effects of phytonutrients
  7. Doctors for Phytonutrients: Types, Benefits and Side Effects

Phytonutrients or phytochemicals are chemicals found in plant-based foods. They are also found in dietary supplement form in the market but should be taken only with a doctor’s prescription. These phytonutrients often improve antioxidant activity in the body, which is known to reduce oxidative stress and prevent free radical damage. So, including more phytonutrient sources in your diet is a good idea.

However, since there is a lot that is still unknown about phytonutrients, excess consumption without the recommendation of a doctor is not advised and it is best to get your phytonutrients from natural food sources rather than dietary supplement form. While not many side effects of phytonutrients are known, if you do experience any side effects then consult a doctor. 

While they may sound the same since they usually come from the same sources, antioxidants and phytonutrients are not the same. Antioxidants are substances that can potentially prevent the damage that unstable molecules called free radicals cause to your body. These free radicals can cause great harm to your body if you have a dearth of antioxidants and this can lead to the development of chronic diseases, even cancer

Phytonutrients are naturally occurring chemicals in plants and many of them act as antioxidants. The healthy bacteria in your gut break these phytochemicals into absorbable compounds that promote the synthesis of antioxidants. For example, beta-carotene and flavonoids are phytochemicals that have antioxidant properties that protect against free radicals.

There are thousands of types of phytonutrients and only a few are identified as having health-promoting properties by scientists. The following are some phytonutrient varieties that you should know about because they provide certain benefits to your health.

Anthocyanidins

Anthocyanidins are phytochemicals and water-soluble pigments responsible for the red, blue and purple colours of fruits, vegetables and flowers. This means that they have a wide presence in your diet in the form of red onions, cranberries and strawberries to eggplant, pomegranates and plums. Anthocyanidins are also found in red wine and are more abundantly found in fruits than in vegetables and grains like red rice. Anthocyanidins are known to help improve blood circulation, so they are good for your heart and may help prevent heart diseases. These phytochemicals also have anti-inflammatory and antiviral effects and should be consumed when you have a cold, flu or even urinary tract infections. Anthocyanidins also act as antioxidants, which means they can also provide some protection against cancer.

Carotenoids

There are more than 600 beta carotenes; they provide yellow, orange and red pigments to plants. The most common carotenoids are alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene. The antioxidant properties of carotenoids help maintain eye health and the immune system, improve the communication between cells and reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and even cancer. Our body converts alpha and beta-carotene into vitamin A, thus reducing the signs of ageing. Other carotenes, lutein and zeaxanthin, reduce the risk of macular degeneration in the eyes. Beta carotene is found in carrots and pigmented fruits and vegetables.

Capsaicin

Capsaicin is a soluble chemical belonging to the alkaloid family and is the reason behind the heat in chillies and bell peppers. Capsaicin doesn’t lose its potency even after being cooked because it is not just soluble in water, oils and fats of all types. Studies suggest that consuming capsaicin can release hormones called endorphins and lead to a euphoric feeling. Capsaicin is also known to relieve inflammation and inflammatory disorders. It can relieve symptoms of arthritis, psoriasis and peptic ulcers too. Some people are, however, allergic to capsaicin, so this phytochemical does not suit everyone. 

Curcumin

Curcumin is the key ingredient found in turmeric, which gives it a distinctive yellow colour. Curcumin is the reason behind the anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-cancer and anti-thrombotic (anti-clotting) properties as well as cardiovascular protective effects of turmeric. Curcumin suppresses inflammation-causing cells in the body which can otherwise cause damage to various organs. It may also help in getting rid of toxic compounds, thus helping fight cancers and tumours. You can consume turmeric by adding it to your food, milk or even water.

Ellagic acid

Ellagic acid is a phytochemical with antioxidant properties and is found in the highest concentration in raspberries. It is also found in all types of berries, pomegranate, guava and walnuts. Not only does ellagic acid protect against free radical damage but also against infections and inflammations of all types. Ellagic acid promotes weight loss and helps prevent obesity. It also helps with insulin resistance in diabetes cases.

Flavonoids

Flavonoids are a well-known group of phytonutrients that include smaller subgroups such as flavones, anthocyanins, flavanones, isoflavones, flavonols and flavanols. Flavonoids are found in a number of fruits such as apples, grapefruit and tomatoes, vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, parsley, carrots, onions, ginger and lemons and other foods and beverages such as coffee, tea, berries, chocolate, legumes and red wine. Flavonoids help regulate the activity of cells and also fight off free radicals thanks to their antioxidant properties. Studies have shown that flavonoids can add a few extra years to your life and also reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke. 

Glucosinolates

Glucosinolates are phytochemicals that are made of sulfur-containing glucosides that are predominantly found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and mustard. However, storing glucosinolate-packed foods for long periods of time can degrade the potency of this phytochemical, so having them fresh is very important if you want to gain benefits from it. Glucosinolates are known to help reduce inflammation and improve both metabolic function and stress responses. Glucosinolates are also said to have cancer-preventing properties.

Phytoestrogens

Phytoestrogens are phytochemicals that have a structural similarity to 17-beta-oestradiol or E2, the primary female sex hormone. This structural similarity enables phytoestrogens to affect the body in ways similar to the hormone. Therefore, consuming foods with phytoestrogen can help regulate menopausal symptoms like hot flushes, reduce the risks of osteoporosis, heart disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, brain function disorders, breast cancer, prostate cancer and bowel cancer. However, an excess of phytoestrogens can also disrupt the endocrine system and lead to adverse health effects, so consume this phytonutrient with caution.

Resveratrol

Resveratrol is a phytonutrient with huge antioxidant properties and belongs to a category of plant chemicals called stilbenoids. This phytonutrient is found in more than 70 plant species and is found in the highest concentrations in grape skin and seeds. It is found in some amounts in red wine, dark chocolate, strawberries, pistachios and peanuts. Resveratrol has high antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. Many studies show that resveratrol also has anti-cancer, cardioprotective, vasorelaxant and neuroprotective properties.

Tannins

Tannins, also known as ellagic acid, are found in raspberries, strawberries, grapes, pomegranates and walnuts. They are believed to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, all of which can help in accelerating the process of blood clotting and reduce blood pressure and accumulation of plaque in the arteries.

Phytonutrients are easily available in most plant foods and especially fruits, vegetables and foods derived from them. Dietary supplements for a few phytonutrients are also available and may be prescribed by doctors according to your individual health needs. The following are some benefits of consuming phytonutrient-rich foods.

Phytonutrients boost immunity

Current scientific evidence suggests that most phytonutrients have anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties. This suggests that consuming phytonutrients can give your immune system a much-needed boost to fight the common cold, flu and many other infections. Consuming phytonutrient-rich foods can also help prevent such infections.

Phytonutrients detoxify the body

Most phytonutrients also bolster antioxidant activities in the body. Phytonutrient-rich foods like green tea, onion, garlic and turmeric are known to be very powerful antioxidants and can, therefore, help flush out all sorts of toxins from the body. Phytonutrients can have therapeutic effects and may also prevent toxins and pollutants from harming your body and health too much.

Phytonutrients aid hormone metabolism

Some phytonutrients like phytoestrogens and capsaicin can aid hormone metabolism. For example, the former can help increase the production of estrogen while the latter aids the release of endorphins. Hormone balance is very important for your health as any imbalance or deficiency can cause a range of issues, from sexual disorders to neurological ones. Some studies even suggest that phytonutrients can prevent hormone-related cancers.

Phytonutrients reduce eye disease risks

Most phytonutrients are known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which is why consuming them may prevent or delay the onset of eye diseases. This includes a reduced risk of glaucoma, cataracts, night blindness and age-related macular degeneration. Phytochemicals like anthocyanidins, resveratrol and beta-carotenes are particularly effective against ocular oxidative stress and damage.

Phytonutrients for your skin

Exposure to ultraviolet rays and other harmful chemicals, pollutants and light rays can damage your skin. This can cause early ageing, wrinkles and other skin issues. A diet rich in certain phytonutrients like beta-carotene and flavonoids (including lycopene and lutein) is known to have a protective effect on the skin. These nutrients can protect the skin from oxidative damage and inflammation while also improving your overall skin health.

Phytonutrients may prevent cancer

Studies suggest that almost all phytonutrients known to humankind have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Many phytonutrients boost the antioxidant activity in your body, thereby minimising free radical damage and preventing most cancers. If you already have cancer then adding phytonutrient-rich foods to your diet may help your recovery and prevent quick progression of the disease.

Phytonutrient supplements are easily available at most pharmacies but must be taken only on the recommendation of a doctor or nutritionist based on your medical history and individual supplementation needs. Phytonutrient supplements usually contain a variety of or a combination of carotenoids and flavonoids. These supplements come in the form of tablets, capsules, powders and liquids. They may vary in ingredients and dosages.

However, there are a few potential side effects of consuming phytonutrient supplements:

  • The phytonutrients in supplements may not be as effective as those derived from natural sources like fruits and vegetables. 
  • The dietary supplement market is not that well regulated, meaning that there may be a chance of you experiencing an allergic reaction or other symptoms like diarrhoea, acne and even kidney damage. 

Given these problems, it is recommended that if you are considering taking phytonutrient supplements then consult a doctor and get a full medical check-up done before starting out. It is also necessary that you take the prescribed amount of supplements and not exceed the recommended dosage.

Phytonutrients are generally known to have many health benefits, especially since they are found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, lentils, whole grains and other plant-derived foods, all of which are known to have immense health benefits themselves. This is why dietary supplements with these phytonutrients are available on the market for doctors to prescribe as per their discretion. There are also many sources of phytonutrients that are used in natural medicine and Ayurveda too. 

However, there is still a lot that scientists are unable to pin down about phytonutrients. The long-term effects, side effects and toxicity on overconsumption are not known for most phytonutrients. Studies on the excessive consumption of some, like phytoestrogen, is known to cause adverse health effects. Since regulations regarding phytonutrients and other related effects are not known, it is recommended that phytonutrients be consumed naturally through your diet and dietary supplements for the same be taken only on the express recommendation of a doctor. 

Dt. Akanksha Mishra

Dt. Akanksha Mishra

Nutritionist
8 Years of Experience

Surbhi Singh

Surbhi Singh

Nutritionist
22 Years of Experience

Dr. Avtar Singh Kochar

Dr. Avtar Singh Kochar

Nutritionist
20 Years of Experience

Dr. priyamwada

Dr. priyamwada

Nutritionist
7 Years of Experience

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References

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  4. Sivakumar, Dharini. et al. A comprehensive review on beneficial dietary phytochemicals in common traditional Southern African leafy vegetables. Food Sci Nutr. 2018 Jun; 6(4): 714–727. PMID: 29983933
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  7. American Institute for Cancer Research. [Internet]. Washington DC. USA. Difference Between Antioxidants and Phytochemicals?.
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