From the Greek phyto (‘plant’), a phytonutrient is literally a plant-derived nutrient. It is thus a chemical compound naturally present in plant foods, which once ingested, offers benefits for our health (1).
Existing in more than 25,000 different forms, phytonutrients are found in fruits and vegetables, spices, whole grains, legumes, seeds and oilseeds.
They’re not only involved in thepigmentation of plants, but they also ensure their integrity, protecting them from UV rays and repelling potential parasites. Given their effects at a botanical level, it’s easy to see why human nutrition researchers find them so fascinating!
As the body is unable to produce phytonutrients itself, we need to focus first and foremost on what we put on our plates! In order to benefit from these important active compounds, we need to eat a varied, balanced diet, with plenty of plant-based foods (2).
To create your menu, think ‘color’: as well as livening up your dishes, bright colors are usually a sign that a food contains phytonutrients. For example, the humble tomato would be a much paler affair without the presence of lycopene! (3)
Alongside diet, targeted phytonutrient supplementation can be helpful for boosting your daily intake of phytonutrients. Let’s take a look at the most important of them.
If you’re thinking ‘carrots’, you’re on the right track. Carotenoids constitute a large group of phytonutrients which give fruits and vegetables their yellow, orange and red hues. Comprising more than 750 distinct pigments, they essentially protect photosynthetic plants from damaging wavelengths.
They include the famous orange beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, as well as the yellow-colored lutein and zeaxanthin which migrate towards the eyes, accumulating in the macula of the retina. Lycopene, mentioned above, is also a carotenoid, one which is stored more in the liver and prostate (4-5).
To boost your intake of carotenoids, you may want to think about supplementation (with, for example, Carottol, a unique formulation combining beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, lycopene and astaxanthin). Other products focus more on specific compounds (such as the supplement Lutein, a significant source of this carotenoid).
Why does red wine get such a good press (as long as it’s not drunk to excess, of course)? It’s probably because of its flavonoid content! In the plant kingdom, these compounds create a protective shield against viruses, bacteria and mould. Numbering more than 8,000, flavonoids are divided into various sub-groups (flavonols, flavones, flavanones, flavan-3-ols, anthocyanidins) (6).
EGCG from green tea leaves, quercetin from apples, rutin from buckwheat and hesperidin from orange zest are among the best-known (7-8).
Certain supplements combine several flavonoids in synergistic formulations (such as FlavoLife, which contains 9 compounds covering all the flavonoid sub-groups).
Coumarin is a secondary metabolite of plants, the main function of which is to deter herbivores. Perfumiers are attracted by its scent of cut hay, but more importantly, this molecule unintentionally contributed to the development of oral anticoagulants (9).
Coumarin is highly concentrated in tonka beans, but is also found in lavender and sweet clover (an excellent venotonic which forms the supplement Lymphatonic).
Naturally present in many white flowers, indole is recognized by its heady scent. In the form of indole-3-carbinol, it constitutes a remarkable phytonutrient of the glucosinolate family, found in cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli ...) (10)
As well as eating sauerkraut, you can use supplements to boost your intake (such as DIM, a formulation based on diindolylmethane, a compound the body makes from digesting cruciferous vegetables).
Fans of tofu will be familiar with isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen found primarily in dried pulses, especially soya beans. Their female hormone-like structure quickly attracted the attention of the scientific community, and current research shows that isoflavones are good for both female and male health (11).
Combined with other compounds, they complete the phytonutrient ‘arsenal’ offered by certain supplements (such as Red Propolis, one of the few red propolissupplements available, rich in isoflavones and containing almost 300 exceptional micronutrients).
Like flax and sesame, some plant species contain another type of phytoestrogen called lignans.These phenolic compounds are found in woody tissues, seeds and roots.
A particular feature of lignans is the fact that they are metabolised during digestion into enterolignans, the benefits of which are of significant interest to scientists (12).
To benefit from lignans, try taking an appropriate supplement (such as Natural Breast Formula, a formulation for women, enriched with flax extract and Norway spruce knots).
Is it a good idea to add a crushed garlic clove to your vinaigrette? Most definitely! Like all members of the Alliaceae family, this superfood owes its reputation mainly to its organosulfur compounds.
Unfortunately, however, garlic is no friend to fresh breath. To get round this, consider taking allicin-free supplements (such as Organic ABG10+®, an organic supplement with the highest dose of S-allyl-cysteine on the market (a powerful organosulfur compound) (13).
Predominantly found in vegetable oils and nuts, phytosterols are plant lipids which closely resemble cholesterol. An illusion which may well ‘trick’ the body’s chief fat-transporters! (14)
Some supplement producers have thus wisely incorporated them into their formulations (such as Damiana Extract, which contains β-sitosterol).
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