Fruit and vegetables contain more than you would think. ‘Phytochemicals’ is a term that we frequently hear. These include several chemical compounds that can protect plants against external influences, such as UV radiation or pathogens, or attract useful insects. Some phytochemicals, like carotenoids, act as colourings. Sulphides, on the other hand, are plant-based flavouring and fragrance agents.
Part of our daily diet
Phytochemicals are also known as ‘secondary’ plant compounds to distinguish them from primary plant compounds – carbohydrates, including fibre, as well as protein and fat. 5,000 to 6,000 phytochemicals have been identified and we suspect there could be many more.
These useful materials are found in fruit, vegetables, nuts, pulses and whole grain products. These foods should be included in our daily diet. They can be combined to create a diverse and colourful meal, as it is believed that combining them with other phytochemicals or plant ingredients is the secret to their effectiveness. This cannot be proven in the case of isolated secondary plant compounds.
Coincidentally, as in the case of vitamins and fibre, fruit and vegetables should not be peeled as most of the valuable materials are in the skin.
Effects on our health
Several studies have concluded that phytochemicals can also play an important role in our health. However, we are still a long way away from investigating all the positive effects on the human body. For this reason, unlike minerals and vitamins for example, no definite recommended intakes can be specified. It is perhaps precisely because of the many unresolved connections that phytochemicals are such an interesting topic for anyone interested in nutrition.
Carotenoids, phytosterols, polyphenols, glucosinolates and phytoestrogens are some of the phytochemicals that have been researched to date. They are believed to have antioxidant, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and blood pressure-lowering properties. Phytochemicals could also help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, asthma, obesity and cancer.
Even if there is certainly still much more to discover about these naturally occurring substances in our plant-based food, it still pays to enjoy fruit and vegetables on a daily basis.