Phytochemicals are nonnutritive plant chemicals that contain protective, disease-preventing compounds. More than 900 different phytochemicals have been identified as components of food, and many more phytochemicals continue to be discovered today. It is estimated that there may be more than 100 different phytochemicals in just one serving of vegetables.
Many cultures like the Chinese and American Indians have always looked to plants for healing. And even today, the World Health Organization says about 80 percent of the people on earth use natural medicine -- mostly involving plants.
As early as 1980, the National Cancer Institute Chemoprevention Program of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control began evaluating phytochemicals for safety, efficacy, and applicability for preventing and treating diseases. Researchers have long known that there are phytochemicals present for protection in plants, but it has only been recently that they are being recommended for protection against human disease.
How are phytochemicals beneficial?
Although phytochemicals are not yet classified as nutrients, substances necessary for sustaining life, they have been identified as containing properties for aiding in disease prevention. Phytochemicals are associated with the prevention and/or treatment of at least four of the leading causes of death in the United States -- cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension. They are involved in many processes including ones that help prevent cell damage, prevent cancer cell replication, and decrease cholesterol levels.
Specifically, the economic cost of cancer to society was estimated to be about $104 billion in 1997. With health care costs being a major issue today, it would be cost effective to continue the research needed to help promote the awareness and consumption of phytochemicals as a prevention strategy for the public.
Can I just take a pill containing phytochemicals?
Americans spend approximately billions every year on vitamin/mineral supplements. It should be expected that extracted phytochemicals will be, if not already, available for consumer purchasing. Consumption of supplements containing phytochemicals will only provide selected components in a concentrated form, not the diversity of compounds that occur naturally in foods. It is important to continue the effort to encourage increased fruit, vegetable, and grain consumption to acquire the benefits of phytochemicals versus simply ingesting a pill containing these substances. Researchers continue to investigate the interactions of phytochemicals naturally present in food. It would be difficult to extract phytochemicals from plants for supplement use before understanding the synergistic effect of all phytochemicals present.
Are there any negative effects?
Individual phytochemicals are being evaluated for their safety and effectiveness in regard to disease prevention. Although most studies support positive outcomes, there are a few studies involving animals that show possible detrimental effects. These studies involve animals and specific extracted phytochemicals in high dosages. The safety of consuming large amounts of fruits, vegetables, and grains is not presently a concern. The research question being asked is: "Should one increase the intake of a particular plant food containing phytochemicals, and how much should they increase it?" Obviously, like any other newly discovered chemical, there is a need for further investigation for potential health benefits and possible health risks. Optimal levels of phytochemicals have yet to be determined. In addition, requirements during disease states may differ from requirements for prevention of heart disease and cancer. Individual recommendations in terms of requirements for different genders, age groups, body types, and so forth also need further study.
How can I incorporate more phytochemicals into my diet?
First, it is important for Americans to become aware of their lack of consumption of fruits, vegetables, and grains. The average American consumes only one serving of vege-tables and one serving of fruit each day. In one survey, one in every nine Americans ate no fruit or vegetable on the day they were interviewed.
Increasing the consumption of plant products in one's diet should not be difficult or time consuming. There are plenty of simple strategies for increasing dietary fruits, vegetables, and grains, including the suggestions below:
- Keep fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, and canned) stocked and in sight.
- Reach for juice instead of coffee or soda.
- Add chopped fruit to cereal, yogurt, pancakes, muffins, or even a milkshake.
- Snack on fresh chopped carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, and peppers (purchase at a salad bar to save time).
- Add fresh greens, carrots, celery, parsley, tomatoes, and/or beans to your soups.
- Store dried fruit (apricots, dates, raisins, and more) for a quick snack at home or work.
There are also several other easy methods for increasing fruits, vegetables, and grains in your lifestyle. Why not challenge yourself and create one of your own? Good Luck!
It was once stated that our health is a "gift". We can control this gift through lifestyle choices of our own. These choices include the foods we choose to eat.
Research has demonstrated the tremendous potential of phytochemicals in regard to prevention and treatment of disease. Now, it is the responsibility of not only health-care professionals, but also individuals to begin the conscientious effort of improving their diet. Even though phytochemicals are readily available in today's food supply, it is highly possible that future foods may undergo bioengineering or fortification to enhance naturally occurring phytochemical concentrations. This would make it even easier to incorporate phytochemicals in the diet.
The research involving phytochemicals is promising, but with any newly discovered chemical, it is recommended that further studies be conducted. This fact sheet was designed to introduce the discovery and importance of phytochemicals. It is in no way intended to replace your health care provider's recommendations. As with any health recommendation, it is advisable to check with your physician before adapting any lifestyle changes.
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