Few people can have missed the message that fruit and vegetables do us good. They are
packed with vitamins, some minerals and help to increase intakes of fibre. Good though
these reasons are for trying to ensure a regular intake of such foods, these nutritional
benefits seem to be just the tip of the iceberg. For hidden away inside every crunch of an
apple, mouthful of mango and bit of broccoli you take are a host of other plant or
“phyto” nutrients thought to offer yet more benefits to our health and
wellbeing.

Understanding the role these phytonutrients play in plants gives a clue as to how they
may help humans. In nature the bright green and red pigments you find in cabbages and
lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries have evolved to help absorb otherwise harmful ultra
violet radiation from the sun. Aroma compounds in garlic and onions help protect them from
bacterial and viral infections and certain enzyme blockers have been formed to fight toxic
pollutants.

Plants have developed literally hundreds of thousands of naturally phyto-protective
substances or phytonutrients which help them fight everything from fungal to bacterial
infections, and to survive the stresses and strains imposed by their local environments.

The theory is that as we consume these plant foods, we may assume some of these
protective benefits “second-hand”. Many of the phytonutrients that scientists
have discovered have, like vitamin C, antioxidant properties. This means that they can
help to fight free radicals; chemicals produced by the body which may, if they are not
deactivated, trigger changes in cells leading to the development of anything from heart
disease and cancer, to cataracts and wrinkles.

Ideas as to the possible disease-fighting functions of phytonutrients were first looked
into by researchers who study disease patterns around the world. Such work led them to
believe for example that something in the diets of Japanese women and men could be helping
to protect them against cancers of the breast and prostate.

One major difference between the Japanese and European diet was found to be the amount
of Soya products eaten. The Japanese enjoy Soya bean curd for example on a regular basis,
and as a result, the levels of plant oestrogens from these foods found in their blood are
fifty times those of Europeans. Studies in Japan led scientists to think that these plant
oestrogens could block human oestrogen action in the body and explain the differences in
breast and prostate cancer in the East and West.

The good news is that there are lots of foods enjoyed all over Europe which are packed
with protective phytonutrients. The table explains more and gives plenty of good reasons
for us to keep trying to eat more fruit and vegetables for the taste and colour of good
health.

Food

Phytonutrient

Potential Health Benefits Against

Tomatoes Red pigment
lycopene
Heart disease,
prostate cancer
Garlic &
Onions
Sulphur compounds
such as allicin Saponins
Infections;
raised cholesterol; tumours
Carrots Orange pigment
beta carotene
Malignant changes
in the lungs
Broccoli, Cabbage
& Brussels Sprouts
Isothiocyanates Lung cancer
Apples, Grapes,
Onions & Tea
Quercetin Heart disease and
cancerous changes to cells
Strawberries
& Grapes
Ellagic acid Pollution from
tobacco smoke
Oranges &
Grapefruit
Terpenes Ulcers and tooth
decay

References:

1. Recent Advances in Phytochemistry: Functionality of Food Phytochemicals. Volume 31;
1997 – Timothy Johns and John Romeo. Published by Plenum Press.
2. Antioxidants – the case for fruit and vegetables in the diet; Catherine Rice-Evans and
Nicholas J. Miller: British Food Journal, Vol. 97 No 9, 1995, pp 35-40.