A Phytonutrient can be an essential nutrient and encompasses a huge class of compounds with numerous subclasses. After all, the name itself just means a nutrient that comes from a plant.
That covers a lot ground and they are widely distributed throughout the plant kingdom and contained in long lists of herbs, fruits, nuts, vegetables, beans and medicinal plants. For our purposes, these plant sourced nutrients refers only to those that are of some value to humans.
We don't want to emulate Wikipedia, so rather than go into depth on each phytochemical, the scope of this section will be limited to a short description of each class and its implications for our health.
The common classes of phytonutrients are:
The best news of all is that dark chocolate (cocoa content of 70% or more) is a great source of flavonoids. Better still is that a study published on May 31, 2012 in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) provides more evidence that dark chocolate may decrease LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol. The study was prompted by the fact that 60-70% cocoa dark chocolate is "rich in polyphenols, specifically those flavonoids that exhibit anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-thrombic and metabolic effects, all of which are thought to contribute to cardio-protection".
On the other hand, some studies showed very little correlation between intake of lignans and cancer prevention, especially breast cancer. The key is in the source of the lignan. For example, whole flaxseeds or supplemented flaxseed showed significant positive results but flaxseed oil did not. One other consideration is that whole seeds may sometimes pass through the system without getting fully digested while ground seeds are more easily absorbed. So if using whole flaxseeds, chew your food throughly.Also, many cancers take 20 years to manifest with noticeable symptoms; which begs the question as to the duration of the clinical trials.
There is some overlap between Phytosterols and some of the other phytochemical compounds but we will go into a short discussion here as if they are a separate class.
These are cholesterol-like compounds that are found mostly
in unrefined vegetable oils, whole grains, nuts and legumes. Foods and beverages with added plant sterols or "stanols" are now available in many countries throughout the world.
Health claims for them are now allowed in a few countries. For some reason, our FDA hasn't figured out yet that something natural from a plant might actually have healing properties...so we will just stay away from saying that they do.
There are about 44 sterols known to exist in plants. The most abundant phytonutrient phytosterols are beta-sitosterol,
campesterol, stigmasterol, campesterol and brassicasterol.
Beta-sitosterol is an essential nutrient representative of all the major plant sterols. It is found in pecans, saw palmetto, avocados, pumpkin seed, cashews, rice bran, wheat germ, corn oils, and soybeans, to name a few.
It has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol and one small study showed a positive effect on male hair loss in combination with Saw Palmetto. (photo)
In Europe beta-sitosterol plays a major role in the herbal treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) as well as the treatment of prostatic carcinoma and breast cancer. These possible benefits are still being investigated in the United States.
The early hunter-gatherer diets were rich in phytosterols, however, the content in the typical Western diet today is relatively low since plant sterols can be destroyed or removed by modern food processing methods.
For this reason, industrially processed foods likely contain less phytonutrient value and may thus be less beneficial than unprocessed foods. An absence or deficiency of essential phytochemicals in processed foods may contribute to increased risk of preventable diseases.
There is an exception to everything and Lycopene is the exception here. This essential phytonutrient present in tomatoes, is either unchanged in content or made more concentrated by processing it into juice or paste, maintaining good levels for bioavailability. So pour on the catsup.
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