What is a phytonutrient? Phytonutrients help us age healthily and protect ourselves from serious diseases. When learning the ABCs of nutrition, the focus is on macronutrients including proteins, fats and carbohydrates, and micronutrients including vitamins and minerals that are essential to human life. However, there is an entire category of nutrients that are often ignored but that more and more scientists consider essential, phytonutrients.
As the name announces (phyto = plant), it is about the diet from plants. Thus, it is phytonutrients (which scientists also call phytochemicals) that give plants their live colors, tastes and textures. Phytonutrients are a defense of plants and are also favorable for our health. They are known to be powerful antioxidants. Among other things, they help protect against certain cancers, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and premature aging. Some of them reduce the inflammatory response and increase our resistance to foreign bodies. Others are metabolized into Vitamin C and helps visual functions, others help with skin elasticity. Finally, one of their most important roles is to help us age health.
What does food bring us?
Phytonutrient Canada has developed products focused on phytonutrients and aimed at protecting against certain diseases. The « C&B » range of natural health products aims to protect you against urinary tract infections with the C&B Urinary Formula. As for the « C&B Prostate Formula » it is to counter diseases related to the prostate. It should be noted that several other marketing licences from Health Canada have been obtained for the manufacture of sexual wellness and cognitive health products. (brain).
Food brings us:
- macronutrients that provide calories, i.e. the energy necessary for the functioning of the body. These are fats, carbohydrates and proteins.
- micronutrients that play no energetic role. Even if micronutrients are present only in minute quantities (micrograms or milligrams) and they constitute only about 2% of the diet, they are absolutely necessary for the maintenance of life because they are essential for all chemical reactions.
Micronutrients are classified into 4 families:
- minerals and trace elements
- essential fatty acids
- amino acids
Some micronutrients cannot be synthesized by the body and must therefore be provided by the diet. A deficiency of these, even slight, causes health problems. Severe deficiency will lead to illness and long-term death.
Phytonutrients are therefore neither vitamins nor minerals and are found naturally in foods of the plant kingdom. Vegetables and fruits are rich in phytonutrients and micronutrients. Each color (green, red, yellow/orange, white/brown, blue/purple) has different levels of these micronutrients and phytonutrients.
Are phytonutrients essential and can they be made by the body?
Phytonutrients are not essential. The absence of them in our diet will not lead to death. Phytonutrients cannot be manufactured by the body and must be provided by a varied, balanced and good quality diet.
As scientists continue to prove that these natural chemicals have a short-term effect on health and a long-term effect on survival, it is becoming increasingly acceptable to discuss their essentiality. In other words, as studies mount that phytonutrients manage to reduce health risks over a lifetime, perceiving them as « essential » becomes all natural. Since these small molecules act on every system in our body, from the gut to the brain, the health benefits they have are truly innumerable.
Are there many phytonutrients?
Phytonutrients are a major category. It mainly includes polyphenols and carotenoids. Nutrition enthusiasts will no doubt like to know that as of January 2016, scientists had listed 23,137 unique phytonutrients in plant foods. It is certain that in the coming years, many more will be discovered. Unlike proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and even minerals that are all good sizes, every phytonutrient is tiny. They are very small molecules, but when it comes to health protection, their action is inversely proportional to their size.
Are phytonutrients beneficial for health?
Since the discovery of phytonutrients, scientists have focused almost exclusively on their antioxidant activity to explain their beneficial benefits. Although this activity is important, it seems that these nutrients promote good health in many ways, including interacting with the immune system as well as with certain cells that, under their influence, offer optimal performance. Surprisingly, phytonutrients have even been shown to create a healthy environment throughout the body, which improves the health of gut microbes. They are also able to influence blood flow and the expression of genes that contribute to insulin and blood sugar control.
Is it difficult to consume enough phytonutrients?
It is becoming increasingly difficult to consume the phytonutrients we used to get from food. Since phytonutrients are very bitter, their content in fresh fruits and vegetables has been selectively reduced to please the delicate North American palate. As a result, the phytonutrient content of some foods has become hundreds of times lower than it was originally. To compensate for the losses caused by the selective multiplication of plants, several leading experts recommend the consumption of phytonutrients from whole plants. And since phytonutrients collaborate like musicians in an orchestra, consuming a single phytonutrient isolated from the food does not compensate for these losses.
What are the best-known phytonutrients and where do you find them?
The best known phytonutrients are:
- Phenolic or polyphenol compounds, flavonoids (anthocyanins, proanthocyans), isoflavonoids, flavonoles, flavones, etc., (Sources: vegetables, fruits, green tea, soy and especially small fruits such as blueberry, aronia, lingonberry idaea and cranberry.)
- Phenolic acids (ferulic acid, caffeic acid, coomic acid, ellagic acid, gallic acid). Sources: whole grains, berries, cherries, grapes, citrus fruits…
- Tannins and catechins. Sources: lentils, beans, tea, grapes, wine…
- Terpenes and Carotenoids (beta carotene, alpha carotene, cryptoxanthin, zeaxanthin, lycopene, lutein …). Sources: Carrot, papaya watermelon, mango, spinach, kale, red pepper tomatoes, oranges…
- Carrots are an important source of carotenoids. Carotenoids give orange color to carrots, peaches, mangoes, but, they can also be found in green leafy vegetables.
- Limonoids (limonin, nomilin, dlimonine). Sources: Orange, lemon, grapefruit, grape, lime…
- Sulfur compounds and xxorganosulfur. Sources: Allicin in garlic and in lechitaké
- Isothiocyanates. Sources: Sulforaphane in cruciferous, bok choy, broccoli cauliflower cauliflower
Ellagic acid, a very powerful polyphenol
Ellagic acid is found mainly in berries (raspberries, strawberries, wild blueberries), chestnuts, nuts and pomegranate. Ellagic acid has several interesting properties. Among 6 fruit extracts, blackberries and raspberries have been shown to rank first and second in terms of combating the oxidation of « bad cholesterol » (LDL), an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Other studies also show that ellagic acid can reduce plaque deposits in the aorta and blood cholesterol.
On the cancer side, many studies show that this phytochemical would avoid triggering mutations that could pave the way for its appearance. Another mechanism of action attributed to ellagic acid is its ability to inhibit two fundamental proteins (VEGF and PDGF) in the formation of the tumor blood network.
Japanese researchers have also clinically analyzed the effects of this acid on skin pigmentation and concluded that ellagic acid causes skin lightening, making it brighter and more radiant because of its inhibitory effect on the melanin synthesis process that is responsible for the pigmentation of our skin, of our eyes and hair. Ellagic acid would also increase the action of a sunscreen by 25% because it potentiates the levels of glutathione, a natural antioxidant produced by the body, which protects the DNA of cells. It also helps to reduce age spots.
In which food can ellagic acid be found? Especially in small fruits such as raspberry, strawberries, wild blueberry but also in chestnut, nuts and pomegranate.
EPIGALLOCATECHIN 3- GALLATE (EGCG)
Kills some human and animal cancer cells in laboratory tests. In which foods can EGCG befound: Green tea
Protect the colon by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria and inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria. May be helpful to people treated with antibiotics or chemotherapy. In which foods can fructo-oligo-saccharides be found? Jerusalem artichoke
GENISTERIN, an isoflavone
Genisterin appears to reduce the risk of colon, breast and ovarian cancer by limiting the effects of estrogen on these tissues. In which foods can genitenin be found? Legumes, soy milk, tofu, coffee
Inhibits certain types of breast cancer by altering the reaction of cells to estrogen. In which foods can indole-3-carbinol be found? Broccoli, cauliflower, kale
Promote the production of enzymes that can inhibit the course of cancer. In which foods can isothiocynates be found? Watercress
Increases immunity. Used in Japan to treat patients with cancer and HIV infection. In which foods can lentinan be found? Shiitake mushrooms
Would oppose a protein that facilitates the growth of cancer cells. Would be particularly useful in the prevention of breast, liver and lung cancers. In which foods can limonene be found? Grated citrus zest, mint, kumquats, caraway and celery seeds.
Fights free radicals and appears to inhibit DNA oxidation which can lead to some cancers. In which foods can lycopene be found? Tomatoes (especially in juice), watermelon, pink grapefruit
Would inhibit the growth of the bacteria that causes most gastric ulcers. Decreases the risk of cataracts. In which foods can quercetin be found? Apples, berries, tomatoes, red grapes, snow peas.
Help kill pathogenic protozoa like giardiasis in the digestive tract. Would have cholesterol-lowering effects. In which foods can saponins be found? Soybeans
Stevia leaf, a calorie-free sweetener that can help with weight loss by decreasing the need for sweets. Comes from a sugar molecule from the leaf of stevia, a South American plant of the chrysanthemum family. In which foods can stevioside be found? Supplements sold in health food stores.
Potentiates the activity of phase II detoxification enzymes that protect healthy cells from disease. In which foods can sulforaphane be found? Broccoli, cauliflower, kale
Deactivates free radicals that can damage tissues and cause them to be inflammation. In which foods can zingerone be found? Ginger, cranberry, lack, raspberry.
Do we eat enough food that provides us with phytonutrients?
Reminder on some definitions
Vitamin deficiency can lead to a decrease in immune functions (the body’s defense functions), and promote the age-related development of processes such as osteoporosis, dementia, atherosclerosis and cancer. Our diet must therefore be rich and varied to avoid any deficiency. Supplements are only necessary in case of proven deficiency because, be careful, an excess of vitamins produces free radicals. Follow-up by a specialist is therefore recommended to keep an optimal intake.
Just like vitamins, minerals do not provide energy but they are essential to the life of our cells. Our diet must provide enough amounts every day to compensate for the losses in the urine.
Mineral salts are present in all foods. To ensure an adequate intake, it is enough to vary your diet and eat a balanced diet. But, be careful. The way food is prepared and the way it is cooked are important for the preservation of minerals. However, the refining that certain foods undergo (sugar, flour, cereals …) impoverishes them. These refined foods are devoid of nutritional value, are poorly digested and force the body to draw on its reserves of vitamins and minerals to metabolize them, causing demineralization and devitalization. Regarding the cooking method, steaming or smothering practically does not alter the minerals. Other cooking methods at high temperatures such as the pressure cooker destroy them.
The most important minerals are: sodium (salt), potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium and phosphorus. These are necessary for all organs, including the brain, and for the functioning of the Enzymes. Their role is therefore vital. A blood test can determine a deficiency in one or the other mineral and a possible intake of supplements may be advised by your doctor or health professional.
Just like vitamins, trace elements do not provide energy but they are essential to the life of our cells. These trace elements are involved in the activity of enzymes and hormones. Trace elements are iodine, copper, fluorine, chlorine, zinc, cobalt, selenium and manganese. Trace elements cannot be synthesized by the body, which must draw them from the diet very regularly because stocks are limited. To ensure an adequate intake, it is enough to vary your diet and eat a balanced diet. But beware! As with minerals, the way food is prepared and how it is cooked are important for its preservation.
Essential fatty acids
Essential fatty acids are fatty acids (fats) that the body is not able to make. He must imperatively find them in the diet or food supplements. They play a vital role in the proper functioning of cells and have a role in inflammation, immunity and blood clotting.
For many years, researchers have been able to demonstrate the relationships that can exist between cardiovascular disease and diet. The first population to be studied was the Greenland Eskimos, who rarely have problems with myocardial infarction. Subsequently, Japanese researchers found that the inhabitants of the Okinowa archipelago hold the world record for longevity. The common point between these 2 populations is a significant consumption of fish rich in omega 3 (essential fatty acids).
Amino acids are essential nutrients for the body. The assembly of several amino acids forms proteins that are the irreplaceable structural agents of our entire organism. Our muscles, our chromosomes, our antibodies, our hormones are made of proteins. The daily needs are important because some molecules are renewed very often in our body (cells of the blood, digestive tract, dander among others) There are essential amino acids that the body can not produce and that must be taken by the diet.
Oxidative stress and its effects on health
Oxidative stress appears to be one of the central mechanisms of cancer, cardiovascular disease and many other chronic diseases. Oxygen is essential for our survival, but its use by the cells of the body is not without danger.
A significant portion (1-2%) of the oxygen we breathe is transformed into toxic derivatives called free radicals. Free radicals can react and damage cellular components such as proteins, lipids and DNA. The oxidation of biomolecules by free radicals is involved in several pathologies such as cardiovascular diseases (arteriosclerosis), neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s), cancer and aging. Several enzymes and other small molecules eliminate free radicals including vitamins E and C. During aging, the generation of free radicals increases and their amount becomes greater than the capacity of our antioxidant defenses. This imbalance, called oxidative stress, will lead the body to a pathological state. Consumption rich in antioxidant compounds can mitigate the impact of this oxidative stress.
Antioxidants are biological substances found in food that have the role of preventing oxidation reactions caused by free radicals. By definition, it is a substance with a low concentration compared to that of the oxidisable substrate, capable of delaying or stopping the oxidation of the substrate.
FOR EXAMPLE: the steel hull of a boat and the saline water that will make it rust
depending on the quality of the paint that covers the shell and prevents it
to attack the metal. The more protective and thick the paint, the better
will be the protection of the steel shell against rust. This is the perfect example
antioxidants in our body.
In the scientific field antioxidants have been classified into three groups, namely:
During a balanced meal, these three groups of antioxidants are easily found. However, the majority of dietary supplements contain synthetic antioxidants.
On the other hand, it seems that antioxidants from food sources have a much higher bio activity than those from supplements from synthetic extracts. This is due on the one hand to the fact that foods contain greater heterogeneity of antioxidants and on the other hand that synthetic antioxidants are less well absorbed by the human body.
Classification of the main classes of antioxidants of food origin.
Polyphenols are chemical compounds naturally present in the plant kingdom,especially in northern berries. There are more than 8,000 different phenolic molecules, such as simple molecules, such as phenolic acids, much more complicated molecules such as tannins, and others that can be complexed to sugars, proteins, and even lipids.
Among the polyphenols, we find flavonoids which represent the main group of this series. Indeed, flavonoids are present throughout the plant kingdom, with the exception of fungi and algae. They are derivatives of hydrosolub polyphenols (soluble in water), often colorless or yellow, with exceptions, such as anthocyanins (blue/wild blueberry) and pro-anthocyanins (red/cranberry).
Flavonoids are in themselves an extremely large family of compounds, playing important physiological roles (nutritional, medicinal, UV filters…). They are present in the berries of Quebec and are of particular interest for human health. They are the subject of many medicinal claims, especially for their strong antioxidant capacity.
Flavonoids are themselves classified according to their degree of oxidation into subgroups such as:
- pro anthocyanidins
Isoflavones are compounds found mainly in legumes, for example in soybeans whose phytoestrogen properties are widely studied. Some isoflavone derivatives are powerful agents against certain bacteria. They have bacteriostatic properties and are specifically induced during infections by plant pathogenic organisms. In particular, many phytoalexins are found in legumes (e.g. phaseollin from beans, glyceolin from soybeans)
Proanthocyanes (particularly concentrated in the case of cranberry/macrocarpon).
Proanthocyanins, also called proanthocyanidins, are flavonoid compounds found in many plants, especially in the skin and grape seeds. This explains their abundance in red wine. It should be noted that it is type A proanthocyanins that are effective in fighting urinary tract infections.
Anthocyanins (particularly concentrated in wild blueberries/antigustifolium)
Anthocyanins are flavonoids found in the plant kingdom and give the characteristic color of leaves, flowers and fruits. These are colored compounds (orange, purple to blue) and usually water-soluble. During the summer, it is chlorophyl that gives the green color of the leaves.
Unlike other flavonoids, anthocyanins absorb most of the time in the ultraviolet spectrum. They play a major part in the coloration of petals, but they are also found in many plant tissues. Their synthesis in the leaf organs is often activated by stress (cold, deficiencies, senescence …). In the fall, due to the lack of chlorophyl, it is the anthocyanins that give the leaves the red and brown color.
Anthocyanin compounds are very often used as food dyes and exhibit antioxidant properties.
Anthocyanins have been studied for several biological activities including antioxidant capacity, the effect on the permeability and fragility of capillary vessels, the aggregation of blood platelets and the effect on collagen. The Antioxidant capacity of anthocyanins is one of the most important biological properties. Epidemiological and biomedical research suggests that antioxidants in berries, such as blueberries, lingonberries and cranberries, can play a preventive role on the appearance of certain diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Anthocyanins and other flavonoids make a substantial contribution to the total antioxidants in the diet. The Anthocyanins would be a natural antioxidant 20 times more effective than vitamins A and C.
The consumption of berries and its effects on health
We already knew the benefits of a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables for the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle. Canada’s Food Guide recommends consuming between 8 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Indeed, consuming these recommended amounts reduces the risk of the appearance of several diseases. Quebec’s boreal forest, which has more than 850 species of vascular plants, is an abundant source of compounds useful for the treatment and prevention of various diseases. Several plants in this vast ecosystem contain a high concentration of antioxidant compounds. Wild dwarf blueberry, platebière, aronia, blackberry, elderberry, cranberry and its close cousin lingonberry red vitis-idaea, red raspberry but especially black raspberry are all renowned for their high content of antioxidant compounds and, therefore, are considered references at this level. Numerous studies show that the antioxidants found in boreal berries have remarkable protective properties.
Several studies have also shown that, for a healthy person, the consumption of fruits rich in antioxidants reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes. Although berries are referred to as small only according to criteria of mass or volume, studies show that these small fruits generally present much higher concentrations than other fruits with compounds of high nutritional value, such as antioxidants, vitamins C and E. These berries are of particular interest, from an organoleptic and medicinal point of view especially for their high concentration of antioxidants.