By Robert Luby, MD

Note: This article is not meant as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult with your medical practitioner before using any type of remedy, herbal or otherwise.

The term “phytonutrients” simply refers to natural chemicals found in plants that act as nutrients for human physiology.  A common distinction made between vitamins/minerals and phytonutrients is the following:  vitamins and minerals are essential for life.  While not essential to sustain life, phytonutrients promote optimal health.  There are more than 25,000 known phytonutrients, an estimated 10,000 of which may prevent disease.

The disease-deterring effects of phytonutrients are derived mainly from their anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and immune-boosting properties.  As such, consumption of phytonutrients has been shown to be protective against cancer, heart disease, asthma, arthritis, osteoporosis, and many other conditions related to inflammation, oxidation, and immune dysfunction.

If phytonutrients are so helpful for human physiology, what is their role in plants?  Botanical and agricultural research reveals that phytonutrients serve the same role in plants as they do in humans, namely anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and immune boosting.  In effect, phytonutrients are the business molecules of the immune system of plants, protecting them from overexposure to sun, rain, insects, and other pests and threats.

Just as the human immune system responds to its environment, so too does that of a  plant.  When a plant incurs an environmental stress, increased levels of phytonutrients will be produced.  Bereft of the “benefit” of pesticides and herbicides, the immune systems of organically grown plants are more highly exposed to threats which require the production of phytonutrients.  This is the principle which explains the higher nutrient levels found in organically grown foods. 

Just what are these phytonutrients and how are they recognized?  The most common categories of phytonutrients include carotenoids, flavonoids, glucosinolates, ellagic acid, and resveratrol.  They are the substances which impart “organoleptic” properties to food.  The term organoleptic refers to the properties of plants which impart an experience to our sense organs.  In other words, phytonutrients are what make plants appeal to our visual sense (bright colors), our gustatory sense (intense flavors), and our olfactory sense (distinctive odors).  It should come as no surprise that the foods highest in phytonutrient content are brightly colored vegetables, fruits, and spices.

The produce and spice sections of City Market are loaded with health-promoting phytonutrients.  So, the next time you need a few groceries, think not that you are merely going shopping.  Rather, visit City Market secure in the knowledge that you are in for an organoleptic experience.  If you would like to learn more about phytonutrients, be sure to attend this month’s Phytonutrient Class at City Market.

To learn moresign up for our "Eat a Rainbow of Phytonutrients for Great Health" class on Thursday, December 6 from 5:30 - 7:00 p.m. Held at City Market.