There are many reasons to enjoy a whole foods plant-based diet. And high on the list of eye-catching colorful reasons are phytochemicals!
The word ‘phytochemical’ literally means phyto (plant) – chemical. From the deep blue hue of blueberries to the pungent aroma of garlic, phytochemicals help give plants their distinctive colors, smells, tastes and other organoleptic (sense engaging) properties.
Phytochemicals also help indicate the health of a plant, when it is ready to be eaten and which nutrients may be present. These are all ways in which plants advertise to those that may spread their seeds (pollinators and hungry animals/insects) that they are a food source worth paying attention to.
“It is thought that phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, all present in fruits and vegetables, work synergistically in whole foods to promote health and lower disease risk. For this reason, many authoritative organizations, such as the National Cancer Institute and The American Heart Association, recommend getting phytochemicals from whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, rather than from supplements.” – Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH)
Next: Health benefits of the Blue food group and more!
To a certain degree, many of the health benefits of phytochemicals still remain a mystery. What we do know so far indicates that they work in harmony with the other vitamins and nutrients present in whole fruits and veggies to keep our bodies in their natural state of health. And that is enough reason to make every meal colorful and plant-filled!
There are over 10,000 known phytochemicals in the plant-based foods we eat. Here is a peek at some of what we’ve learned thus far about how these amazing natural chemicals can benefit our health.
Fruits, Veggies and Phytochemicals – Oh My!
Blue/Purple fruits and veggies derive their color from natural plant pigments (phytochemicals) called “anthocyanins.” Anthocyanins act as powerful antioxidants protecting cells from damage. Although many red/pink fruits and vegetables are also rich in anthocyanins, generally speaking, the darker the blue/purple hue, the higher the phytochemical concentration.
Health benefits: Anthocyanins may support healthy blood pressure, reduce risk of heart disease (by preventing unnatural clot formations), improve memory function (overall healthy aging) and lower risk of cancer.
Other reasons to eat blue and purple fruit and veggies:
- Blue/purple fruits and veggies are rich in flavonoids which may be able to make our blood vessels healthier, reverse the short-term memory loss associated with aging, improve motor skills, and help prevent bacteria from sticking to cells (such as in the lining of the urinary tract).
Examples: Blackberries, blueberries, eggplant, figs, juneberries, plums, prunes, purple grapes, raisins.
Next: Green food group
Green fruits and vegetables derive their color from the natural plant pigment (phytochemical) called “chlorophyll.” Some of these green fruits and veggies, such as dark leafy greens, pistachios, peas, cucumber and celery, also contain the phytochemical lutein, which is important for eye health.
Health Benefits: Lutein works with zeaxanthin (another natural chemical found in corn, red peppers, oranges and grapes) to help keep eyes healthy (reducing the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration).
Other reasons to eat green fruit and veggies:
- The “indoles” (naturally occurring chemicals) in broccoli, kale, cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables may help protect against some types of cancer.
- Many green plant foods are also rich in isothiocyanates, which stimulate enzymes in the liver that assist the body in removing potentially carcinogenic compounds.
- Leafy greens such as spinach and broccoli are excellent sources of folate, a B vitamin that helps reduce risk of birth defects, along with being an excellent source of vitamin K (essential in blood clot formation), potassium, some carotenoids, and omega-3 fatty acids!
Examples: Green apples, artichokes, asparagus, avocados, kale, green beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, green cabbage, cucumbers, green grapes, honeydew melon, kiwi, lettuce, limes, green onions, peas, green pepper, spinach, zucchini, pistachios, bok choy.
Next: Red food group
Red fruits and vegetables derive their color from natural plant pigments (phytochemicals) called “lycopene” and “anthocyanins.” Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant which is found in plants such as tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit. Anthocyanin is also a powerful antioxidant and is found in fruits such as strawberries, raspberries, and red grapes.
Health Benefits: Lycopene may help reduce risk of heart attacks and certain types of cancer, most notably prostate cancer. Anthocyanin is thought to improve heart health and the overall function of the body.
Other reasons to eat red fruits and veggies:
- Red fruits and vegetables also contain certain flavonoids, which may reduce inflammation and have antioxidant properties.
- Many red fruits are high in vitamin C and folate.
- Cranberries, an often-overlooked red fruit that contains anthocyanins, are also a good source of tannins, which prevent bacteria from attaching to cells.
Examples: Red apples, beets, red cabbage, cherries, cranberries, pink grapefruit, red grapes, red peppers, pomegranates, red potatoes, radishes, raspberries, rhubarb, strawberries, tomatoes, watermelon, guava.
Orange/yellow fruits and vegetables derive their coloring from the natural plant pigments (phytochemicals) called “carotenoids.” Beta-cryptoxanthin, beta-carotene, and alpha-carotene are all orange-friendly carotenoids, which can be converted in the body to vitamin A.
Health Benefits: Vitamin A is integral for vision and immune function, as well as skin and bone health. Scientists have also reported that carotenoid-rich foods can help reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer (especially in the lungs, esophagus, and stomach), and can improve immune system function.
Other reasons to eat orange and yellow fruit and veggies:
- Orange and yellow fruits are also often an excellent source of vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids and folate (a B vitamin that helps reduce the risk of birth defects).
Examples: Yellow apples, apricots, butternut squash, cantaloupe, carrots, mangoes, nectarines, oranges, papayas, peaches, pears, yellow peppers, persimmons, pineapple, pumpkin, rutabagas, yellow summer or winter squash, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tangerines, yellow tomatoes, yellow watermelon, lemons.
White fruits and vegetables derive their color from the phytochemicals called “anthoxanthins.”
Health benefits: Many white fruits and vegetables also contain the chemical allicin, which may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure as well as reduce the risk of stomach cancer and heart disease.
Other reasons to eat white fruits and veggies:
- Some members of the white group, such as bananas and potatoes, are also a good source of potassium, which is important for the healthy functioning of our heart, kidneys and other vital organs.
Examples: Bananas, cauliflower, garlic, ginger, jicama, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, potatoes, turnips.
Next: Colorless phytochemicals
While the blue in blueberries might help to signal what nutrients are present in this fruit, there are many more beneficial phytochemicals that are colorless as well. In fact, the largest class of phytochemicals, called “flavonoids,” is, for the most, part colorless.
Health benefits: Flavonoids work as powerful antioxidants that may help the body to counteract free-radical formation.
According to Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), there are more than 4,000 different flavonoids:
-myricetin (in berries, grapes, parsley, and spinach)
-quercetin (in onions, apples, broccoli, cranberries, and grapes)
-apigenin (in celery, lettuce, and parsley)
-luteolin (in beets, bell peppers, and Brussels sprouts)
-hesperetin and naringenin (both in citrus fruits and juices)
-catechin (in tea, red wine, and dark chocolate)
-epicatechin, gallate, epigallocatechin, and epigallocatechin gallate (in teas, fruits, and legumes)
Anthocyanidins: (in blue/purple and red fruits and vegetables)
As we continue to learn more about phytochemicals, the list of health benefits is sure to grow!
The beauty of a plant-based diet is that it is not only good for the planet, our fellow animals, and us, but it is also filled with bright, beautiful fresh fruit and veggies that tantalize the eye and attract the taste buds. So dig in and enjoy!