Eat the Rainbow: What's the deal with phytochemicals and health?

Here at Plantable, we know that nutrition can play a huge role in fighting off cancer. Today we're delving into one of our greatest allies in cancer prevention, phytochemicals.

What are phytochemicals?

It’s pretty simple. 'Phyto' means plant in Greek, so ‘phytochemicals’ directly translates to plant chemicals. More specifically, phytochemicals are bioactive compounds in fruits, vegetables and whole grains that give the plant its color, taste and aroma. They also play a role in preventing chronic disease.

Where do we find them in food?

Short answer: PLANTS! Be it fruits, vegetables or whole grains, eating plants is the only way we can get phytochemicals in our diet. Here a few phytochemicals that you may be familiar with:

  • Carotenoids: found in some of our fave fall veggies like sweet potatoes and pumpkin
  • Anthocyanins: responsible for giving that deep color to berries and beets
  • Resveratrol: found in everyone’s favorite happy hour beverage - red wine
  • Polyphenols: found in favorite beverage - tea

While we might associate a fruit or vegetable with one particular phytochemical, they each offer a mixture of hundreds to thousands phytochemicals. (Big things come in small packages!) 

How do phytochemicals work to prevent cancer?

First and foremost, some phytochemicals have antioxidant activity. Antioxidants are compounds that stabilize free radicals, which can lead to inflammation in our bodies and may lead to cancer development.

But the role of phytochemicals in the body goes beyond antioxidant activity. Scientists have proposed that phytochemicals may help lower inflammation, inhibit excessive cell growth, enhance detoxification, and suppress tumor gene expression, among many other beneficial functions. 

What about phytoestrogens?

One particular class of phytochemicals that plays a role in breast cancer prevention is phytoestrogens. These are found primarily in soybeans and soy products as well as chickpeas. There has been a great deal of research on this topic, and the current theory is that because phytoestrogens act as a weaker form of estrogen in the body, they can actually be protective against breast cancer. In fact, in the large scale Shanghai Breast Cancer Study, the group with the highest intake of soy and related beans had a 29% decrease in breast cancer recurrence.

Could I take a phytochemical or antioxidant as a supplement?

You may think that purifying these beneficial compounds into pill form would be great for us, but it is best to get phytochemicals and antioxidants from whole foods. The research backs this up. For instance, in one large-scale randomized controlled trial, smokers experienced no decrease risk on lung cancer by taking beta-carotene (a carotenoid) supplements. In some cases, cancer risk was even found to increase subsequent to supplementation.

The takeaway is that each plant food offers a delicate, balanced mix of thousands of phytochemicals that work together synergistically to help our bodies. There is just no way to replicate this synergy in pill form. Why mess with perfection?

The Bottom Line

Eat the rainbow. If you have a wide and colorful array of plants in your diet, you will reap the benefits of protective phytochemicals.