The benefits of phytonutrients 

Published 2:05 pm Monday, March 14, 2022

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Last week we learned some interesting facts about produce. Today, I’d like to share information on substances found in all fruits and vegetables, that not only helps protect plants as they grow, but us as well. These substances are called phytonutrients. Plants, over time, develop these compounds to protect themselves from harm. You see, unlike humans, and most animals, plants can be at a real disadvantage, because they’re stuck in a single location. If one plant gets sick from mold or fungus, the plants next to it can’t just get up and move a safe distance away. They have to stay right there, and battle disease, injury, drought, insects, excessive heat and pollutants in soil, air and water. 


Plants produce these phytonutrients as part of their immune systems. The word “phyto” comes from the Greek word, meaning “plant.” “The word nutrient comes from the Latin “nutrire” meaning “to feed, nurse, support or preserve.” Since phytonutrients are not considered traditional nutrients like carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals, they are sometimes referred to as phytochemicals. Also, their usage for health benefits isn’t just recent. In fact, it’s believed Hippocrates may have prescribed willow bark leaves to abate fever. Salicin extracted from willow bark would later be synthetically produced, and known as over-the-counter aspirin. Phytonutrients provide many healthful benefits that may affect cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease and age-related macular degeneration, and may also enhance immunity and intercellular communication, repair DNA damage from exposure to toxins, detoxify carcinogens and alter estrogen metabolism.

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Scientists estimate as many as 26,000 or more different phytochemicals of a particular note.


There are several classes of phytonutrients, but the best known are carotenoids. Carotenoids are pigments that give fruits and vegetables their red, yellow, orange or purple colors. By the way, phytonutrients are also responsible for fruit and vegetable aromas. This is known as the plant’s organoleptic quality. Some common carotenoids and their sources include alpha-carotene (carrots), beta-carotene (leafy greens, sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, kale, collards and turnip greens), beta-cryptozeaxanthin (citrus fruits, peaches and apricots), lutein (leafy greens like kale, spinach, and turnip greens) and zeaxanthin (leafy greens, citrus and eggs). Another significant phytochemical found in fruits and vegetables is sterol. Sterols are a subgroup of steroids. Sterols in plants are called phytosterols, sterols in animals are called zoosterols. Phytosterols have have been shown to block cholesterol absorption sites in the human intestine, thereby reducing serum blood cholesterol levels. Phytosterols also act as precursors to “human sterols.” These act to modulate the human endocrine system, thus making it possible for the body to produce dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA for short). DHEA is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, and serves a variety of functions. This hormone is often referred to as “the mother hormone” because of its ability to convert into other hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, progesterone and corticosterone. This makes DHEA a forerunner to all other human hormones. Research also shows that adequate levels of DHEA in the body can slow the aging process, and help prevent and reverse conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, memory loss, obesity and osteoporosis. Human DHEA levels peak between ages 20-25, then decline with age. I do not recommend DHEA supplementation unless advised by your doctor, because too much of this hormone has been shown to increase blood clotting, an overabundance of estrogen in men and an increase in hormone related cancers like prostate, breast and ovarian. We do need this hormone and all the phytochemicals discussed today, for optimum health, but get them the way nature intended, by eating your fruits and vegetables. 


I’ve started giving my free nutrition and fitness consultations. If you’ve signed up, I will be contacting you, or feel free to contact me, to get on the schedule. David Crocker is a nutritionist and master personal trainer. Questions? Contact David at or text him at 864-494-6215.