Phytonutrients: The Next Frontier in Nutrition


It is interesting to note that only a few years ago, the word "phytochemical" or phytonutrient" was barely known. Today, this emerging class of nutrients is the driving force in the nutritional supplement industry and the new frontier in cancer and ardiovascular research. Even the conservative American Institute for Cancer Research in a recent brochure entitled "Taking A Closer Look At Phytochemicals" wrote:"phytochemicals in foods may offer front-line defenses against cancer." As the science and clinical application evolve, phytochemicals will undoubtedly be known as the most important class of nutritional compounds to treat and prevent disease.

Phytonutrients are powerful food factors, found in fruits, vegetables, herbs and other whole foods, that elicit profound effects on the maintenance of health and disease prevention. In plants, many of these phytonutrients have been shown to repel bacteria, viruses, fungi and insects, defend against dehydration and harmful ultraviolet rays, protect against oxidative damage and stimulate chlorophyll production. More importantly, a significant amount of research exists to demonstrate their positive effects on disease prevention in humans. As a matter of fact, major medical institutions and organizations, such as the National Cancer Institute, are carefully studying various phytonutrients for their role in the prevention of chronic degenerative diseases.

The research into how phytonutrients work and the role they play in human bodies is rapidly expanding. These compounds seem to provide the best protection against many of the diseases that afflict us today. The future of medicine and nutritional science resides within the development and isolation of phytonutrients. What is to evolve from all of this work is an area of great excitement - an area we call Phytomedicines. But phytonutrients are not only the future of medicine, they are the future of the Natural Products Industry.

It is estimated that there are several thousand phytonutrients that have beneficial effects on the body; however, only a few hundred have been discovered and researched. Scientists have grouped these substances based on their protective functions and the physical characteristics of the molecules:

Carotenoids: Although some carotenoids act as precursors to vitamin A, many also act as powerful antioxidants and anti-cancer agents. While beta carotene is the most well-known, many other carotenoids such as alpha carotene, lutein, lycopene, zeaxanthin and capsanthin have demonstrated even greater antioxidant and anti-cancer activity.

Polyphenols: Polyphenols provide the characteristic colors, aromas and tastes of many foods, such as berries, fruits, wine and tea. However, they also act as powerful free radical scavengers which are useful in preventing and treating a variety of disease conditions.

Isoflavones: Isoflavones are also in the class of phenols. Among them, Genistein and Daidzein are the most studied and best known. They are also considered phytoestrogens because they look and act like estrogen but have only 1/1000 of the effect. Genistein has been shown to be a powerful anti-cancer compound because it interferes with enzymes important for cancer growth and prevents blood supply to the tumor.

Isothiocyanates: Isothiocyanates are found in cruciferous vegetables. Researchers have also isolated and identified, sulforaphane, a key chemical in broccoli that strongly induces enzymes that protect against cancer. So, the protective effect is thought to be due to compounds in these vegetables that assist with detoxifying the harmful effects of carcinogens.

Thiols: Thiols are a sulfur-containing class of compounds which includes allylic sulfides found primarily in garlic and onions. The principle active agent in garlic is alliin which is converted to allicin. Allicin yields a cascade of sulfur bearing compounds that have antibiotic and antifungal effects, as well as anti-cancer properties and immune protection.

Tocotrienols: As part of the vitamin E family, tocopherols are identical in structure to tocopherols, but with three double bonds. This difference may make tocotrienols more efficient antioxidants since they have the ability to better penetrate tissue. However, taking both tocotrienols and tocopherols will ensure maximum benefit from both groups.

These represent just a few of the exciting and emerging new nutrients from plants that have hit the Natural Products Industry. There are still many yet to be identified and isolated for study. Their importance should not be underestimated since they elicit protective benefits that are more powerful than vitamins and minerals.