What are phytochemicals?
Phytochemicals are substances that are naturally present in foods of plant origin. Currently, much is being researched about them for the benefits they bring to health, mainly their antioxidant power and their possible role in cancer prevention.
On the other hand, phytochemicals are not properly nutrients, therefore, they do not have energy or nutritional function. That is why foods containing phytochemicals are called functional foods, as they provide health benefits.
In a varied and healthy diet, we can find a sufficient quantity of phytochemicals to contribute its benefits to our health. Likewise, the combination in the same food of different phytochemicals enhances and improves the effects of them.
Functions of phytochemicals and benefits of their consumption
The phytochemicals are responsible for assigning color, smell and taste to the dishes. For example, carotenoids are pro-vitamin A elements, so they have similar functions to this vitamin.
Among the functions that are attributed to phytochemicals, it includes the collaborate in maintaining a correct vision, as well as the integrity of the osseous and epithelial system. In addition, during breastfeeding stimulate milk production.
Several of the phytochemicals they have an essentially antioxidnate function. For this reason, they help reduce inflammation. In addition, they act as protectors in cardiovascular diseases.
Another of the most known effects of phytochemicals is its possible relation with the prevention of certain tumoral or cancerous processes. This function is carried out by converting potentially toxic or noxious substances into non-hazardous ones.
Some compounds also help maintain the immune system. Therefore, we can say that there are many beneficial properties attributed to phytochemicals.
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Characteristics of phytochemicals
Phytochemicals are elements that only exist in the plant kingdom and they are found in very small amounts. However, there are a large number of them that have not yet been investigated.
But nevertheless, Phytochemicals are not nutrients; there are no diseases due to their lack, but they do enhance the action of other nutrients.
In addition, they are not essential for our organism such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins or minerals. Because they are antioxidants, exert preventive and curative action in the body.
Types of phytochemicals
The most common classification of phytochemicals it is done in function of its molecular structure, as well as its food sources:
In turn, in the group of phenols we can make the following classification:
- Flavonoids: They are found in citrus fruits such as cherry, apple, grape, acerola, tea, onion and pepper. In the group of flavonoids include, among others: anthocyanins, catechins, isoflavones, tannins, rutin, quercetin.
- Phenolic acids: phytic acid, gallic acid, chlorogenic acid and vanilla among others. Some of their most abundant sources are legumes, whole grains, tea and artichoke.
- Non-flavonoid polyphenols: such as resveratrol or lignans present in red wine, flax seeds, whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
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The terpenes are divided into two groups:
- Carotenoids: such as lycopene, alpha-carotene, lutein, beta-carotene or capsaicin, which are found in carrots, squash, orange, mango, spinach, tomato, watermelon, grapefruit, red pepper or papaya.
- No carotenoids: among which are the phytosterols, saponins or limonoids. Vegetable oils such as soy and fortified foods such as cassava and quinoa are some examples of foods with a high content of non carotenoid phytochemicals.
This group also It is known as the group of sulfur compounds, for containing this mineral:
- Índoles: Foods such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, spinach or broccoli are the richest in character.
- Glucosinolates: the food sources of this group are cruciferous, such as Brussels sprouts, red cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower or radishes.
- Organosulfur compounds: present in garlic.
This group of phytochemicals acts as vitamin E. Its main sources are vegetable oils, nuts, green leafy vegetables and whole grains.
Part of the phytochemicals are already being synthesized by the pharmaceutical industry. However, these supplements do not replace the need to follow a diet rich in cereals, fruits, vegetables and legumes. Do not forget!