nutritional information:

Phytochemicals: Nutrients Of The Future

nutraceutical. It describes specific chemical compounds found in foods that may prevent disease.

    Phytochemical is a more recent evolution of the term that emphasizes the plant source of most of these protective, disease-preventing compounds. A true nutritional role for phytochemicals is becoming more probable every day as research uncovers more of their remarkable benefits. In fact, the term phytonutrient better describes the compounds’ “quasi-nutrient” status. Someday, phytochemicals may indeed be classified as essential nutrients.

    One finger pointing in this direction is a body of research that strongly links the importance of diet to health—studies are showing that as we move away from the diet of our ancestors we succumb to “modern” diseases. Evidence of this can be seen in societies such as the centenarian tribes that live in remote villages in the Andes Mountains and who still embrace traditional dietary practices. These people have been reported to live extraordinarily long lives that are free of such illnesses as cancer, heart disease and arthritis.1

    Since few people live today as “naturally” as do the tribes in remote Andean villages, researchers have examined epidemiological evidence from modern societies for clues to the diet-disease connection. On the basis of such studies, biochemical researchers have identified certain phytochemicals that aid the body in maintaining health and combating disease. As an overall guideline, health authorities recommend that we consume diets rich in whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables as well as reduce fat and animal-protein consumption.2

    In the past, the phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables were classified as vitamins: Flavonoids were known as vitamin P, cabbage factors (glucosinolates and indoles) were called vitamin U, and ubiquinone was vitamin Q. Tocopherol somehow stayed on the list as vitamin E. Vitamin designation was dropped for the other nutrients because specific deficiency symptoms could not be established.

    Recent research, however, has enabled scientists to group phytonutrients into classes on the basis of similar protective functions as well as individual physical and chemical characteristics of the molecules.

    Following is a look at each of the phytonutrient classes. It is fairly confusing to identify in which class a phytonutrient belongs, but this information is important to know because each class offers a unique kind of protection for the body. To play the “wellness game,” however, all classes of phytonutrients need to be consumed.

1. Walker, Morton. Secrets of Long Life, New York, Devin-Adair Publishers, 1993.

2. Dragsted, L.O., et al., Pharmacology and Toxicology, 72 Suppl. 1:116-35; 1993.

    Marcia Zimmerman, M.Ed., C.N., is C.E.O. of the consulting firm Marcia Zimmerman & Associates in Westlake Village, Calif. She has more than 15 years experience in the natural foods industry as a retailer, product formulator, educator and nutritional counselor.

—courtesy of Austin Nutritional research

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