Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What is a Phytonutrient?

Phytonutrients and Functional Foods: Super Foods for Optimal Health

Guest Author, Kathleen Klotzbach, Rutgers University Extension

“Let food be your medicine and  medicine be your food” was a tenet espoused by Hippocrates in approximately 400 B.C.1 Almost 2,500 years later, this philosophy is once more of utmost importance, as it is the “food as medicine” philosophy that is the core of functional foods.

What are Phytonutrients and Functional Foods?

“Phytonutrients and functional foods” is a broad term that has attracted significant attention from scientific  researchers, health professionals, and journalists. Although there is no consensus on an exact definition,  “functional foods” usually refers to foods containing significant levels of naturally occurring, biologically active  components that impart health benefits beyond the basic essential nutrients. These components may play a vital role in disease prevention and health promotion, but there is no Recommended Daily Allowance for them. Such substances may have a defined effect on a person’s physical, mental, or physiological well-being.
They could impact people’s metabolism and immune systems, protecting them from disease. They could also affect their risk of heart disease, cancer, or other illnesses, as well as aging and mood.

What are the Benefits of Phytonutrients & Functional Foods?

Phytonutrients and functional foods components have been associated with the prevention and/or treatment of at least four of the leading causes of death in this country, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension, along with the prevention and/or treatment of other medical ailments including neural tube defects, osteoporosis, abnormal bowel function, and arthritis. In recent years, the focus of nutritional research has shifted from the prevention of nutritional deficiencies, such as vitamin C deficiency with scurvy, or niacin deficiency with pellagra, to prevention of chronic diseases. Researchers have only just scratched the surface of the identification of various compounds, their disease preventive properties, and their efficacy against certain diseases. Many questions still remain. Although the mechanisms of action in a variety of phytonutrients have been uncovered, many more need to be investigated. The National Cancer Institute estimates that one in three cancer deaths are diet related and that 8 of 10 cancers have a nutrition/diet component. These figures alone suggest that the potential impact of  phytonutrients and functional foods on the health of Americans is worth examining.

What are Examples of Foods with Functional Components?

These are just a few...
  • Oats contain beta-glucan, a soluble fiber which may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease via the lowering of blood cholesterol, a recognized risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
  • Garlic are rich in allicin and related compounds, it appears to lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure. These compounds may also stimulate immune function and slow the growth of cancer cells.
  • Tomatoes get their red color from lycopene, a carotenoid that fights the uncontrolled growth of cells into tumors. Consumption of tomatoes and tomato products such as sauce, catsup, and tomato paste may reduce risk for cancer of the colon, prostate, bladder, and pancreas.
  • Soy Products (tofu, tempeh, soy milk, miso, etc.) contain genistein and other cancer-fighting isoflavones. These compounds suppress formation of blood vessels that feed cancer cells and interfere with the body’s synthesis of estrogen, possibly reducing the risk for breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer.
  • Flaxseed contains lignans, powerful antioxidants that are believed to stop cells from becoming cancerous. It also contains alpha-linolenic acid, the plant version of omega-3 fatty acids that may reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • Broccoli contains indoles that may protect cells from damage by carcinogens and help the liver inactivate estrogen-like compounds that may promote breast cancer.

At this point, scientific data is incomplete to argue that any one food prevents or cures disease. Experts agree that scientific evidence related to functional foods is still unfolding. The best dietary advice is to follow the recommendations of the food guide pyramid and consume at least the minimum of 3 vegetables and 2 fruits per day.

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