Phytonutrients are chemical compounds found in many types of plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, grains and beans. Plants create hundreds of these compounds to both survive and interact with their environment. Different phytonutrients have different functions inside the plant such as protecting plants from UV radiation, protecting from insects, as well as giving plants their color and smell.
Phytonutrients are produced by plants to maintain their health. These compounds also have biological functions that support human health. They provide beneficial mechanisms that promote the function and vitality of the body, including: immune system health, anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, neuroprotective, anti-aging, and potentially anti-cancer. Antioxidants, which help the body combat oxidative damage and free radicals, are specific types of phytonutrients. Antioxidants are being studied for their potentially therapeutic effect in some diseases, since they are a relatively cheap and nontoxic way of enhancing the body's ability to fight off illness or disease. The color pigments of fruits and vegetables are indicators as to what phytonutrients and antioxidants it contains, and plants with deeper colors often contain more phytonutrients. Here is a great infographic on phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables.
Instead of counting phytonutrients like someone may count calories, consuming a diet that is full of different colored fruits and vegetables is enough to help ensure the vitality of the body. Aiming to consume five to ten servings per day is often recommended (1). Many fruits and vegetables are also more nutritious when consumed raw versus when they are cooked (2). While chemical compounds and nutrients are very sensitive heat, such as vitamin C, most are changed or denatured by long periods of high heat, so over cooking fruits and vegetables may reduce their benefit. It is also ideal to get fresh and local fruits and vegetables and eat them as soon as possible because the nutrients start to breakdown after being harvested. Researchers from Penn State University found that spinach lost the majority of it’s nutrients and antioxidants over the course of four to eight days, depending on temperature (3). For more great reasons to source food locally, read our previous blog post of local food here.
Buying vitamins to get specific nutrients may seem easy, and while you can sometimes find isolated phytonutrients in vitamin form, scientists have concluded that when consumed as whole foods, these phytonutrients work synergistically with each other and important enzymes for absorption, which allows them to have a more profound and beneficial effect on the body (4). In a study, researchers gave people fruit and vegetable concentrate, and contrasted that with isolated vitamin C and E supplements. While the amounts of vitamin C and E in the fruit and vegetable concentrate was lower than the supplements, the fruit and vegetable concentrate had a greater effect in the body (5).
The added benefit of getting your fruits and vegetables in juice form is that the process of juicing plants breaks the cell walls that the stomach must first breakdown to make the nutrients available to the body. Since they aren’t locked in the cells walls, the nutrients are able to be quickly absorbed without requiring much energy, flooding your body with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
One of the reasons we love making juice that it’s a great way to obtain fruits and vegetables, with 5-9 servings in each of our ten ounce bottles. If you’re curious, you can keep use this checklist to see how many colors of fruits and vegetables you get during the week.
- Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2000; 9(7): 647-52 and Med Sci Sports Exerc 2006; 38:6, pp1098-1105