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What are Phytochemicals?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2018
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If you read about food nutrition, you may hear the term superfoods, which defines foods that have a high presence of something called phytochemicals. This term sounds very scientific, and may not mean much to the average person. Yet once explained, phytochemicals are easy to understand.

Plants work to produce chemicals that have natural protection properties. They may help plants shield against the development of molds or protect against growth of bacteria, for instance. Some research suggests that the production of these phytochemicals, doesn’t just benefit the plants. People who consume plants with a high presence of these chemicals may be able to benefit from these protective chemicals too, though they may serve a different purpose for people than they do for plants.

Each chemical labeled a phytochemical works in different ways; not all are the same for humans, and not all come from the same plants. Some have shown more promise than others in fighting disease and illness in humans. There are some basic types of phytochemicals that are found in different fruits and vegetables. You’ll hear the term antioxidant discussed frequently, and certain antioxidants, which may prevent premature cell death, some forms of cancer, or aging, are present in things like onions, most fruit, and tea.

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Some women have turned to phytochemicals called isoflavones or plant estrogen. These estrogens, often present in soy and soy products, might prove helpful in the years just before and after menopause begins. Other types of beneficial chemicals called indoles might help reduce levels of estrogen in the body, which may have some breast cancer prevention properties, though this is not proven. Others touted as breast cancer preventatives include terpenes and protease inhibitors.

One phytochemical found in hot peppers is capsaicin, which has been shown to significantly reduce prostate tumors in size, at least in mice. Taking capsaicin on a regular basis by eating spicy foods with hot peppers may prove an excellent preventative to prostate cancer and benign growth of the prostate. A number of these plant chemicals are being reduced into supplement formulas, and are available at health food and natural foods stores.

There’s a big question about whether phytochemicals that aren’t present in food form actually work as well as when you obtain them from natural sources. Most nutritionists recommend getting most phytochemicals directly from foods. For this reason, the category of superfoods has been introduced, since these fruits and veggies boast high levels of potentially beneficial, naturally produced chemicals. You can find lots of lists of superfoods online.

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