For ages, plants have been a major source of human nutrition. Our bodies need energy to function effectively and most of this energy comes from nutrients derived from the plant foods we eat. Apart from nutrients, healthy foods also contain medicinal properties and substances that help our body fight against diseases.
The sun is critical to the survival of every life form on earth. Plant foods are products of radiant energy (energy that is transferred by electromagnetic radiation such as sunlight). For plants to survive, radiant energy has to be converted to chemical energy, a process known as photosynthesis. During this unique process, the colors displayed by plants are formed as their pigments interact with the sun. So how do these plant pigments benefit us as humans? In this article, we discuss the science behind the benefits of colorful foods to human health.
When plants harness the energy from sunlight and combine it with carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere and water derived from the soil, a chemical reaction occurs in their chlorophyll molecules. During this process, they generate energy and release oxygen into the atmosphere. The energy generated often serves as nutrients to animals and humans when they consume plant foods. Indirectly, the sun provides us with the fruits and vegetables we eat to survive.
When we consume plant foods, we do not only get nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, and vitamins, we also benefit from their natural chemicals known as phytonutrients or phytochemicals. Phytonutrients, unlike the vitamins and minerals found in plant diets, aren't required for survival. However, they may help prevent sickness and keep your body functioning properly when you consume them through plant foods.
The true function of color in plants is not for humans, but for ecological functions. While some plant pigments are necessary for photosynthesis, others serve as important visual cues for pollination and seed dispersal in the interaction between plants and animals. Nevertheless, when we consume plant foods, their pigments provide us with nutritional and health benefits.
The term 'phytochemicals' in food science refers to a wide range of plant compounds with various structures that have health-promoting properties. Phytonutrients, often found in low concentrations, have pharmacological effects. These effects have been used in naturopathy as medicinal herbs, foods, teas, and spices for ages. Recent studies also suggest eating foods high in phytochemicals has a variety of health benefits.
There are tens of thousands of phytochemicals known, and researchers believe there are likely many more in the foods we eat that have yet to be discovered. Antioxidant activity is seen in several of these phytonutrients. An antioxidant is a chemical that prevents the oxidation of another molecule. Free radicals are produced when molecules in the body are oxidized. Free radicals are extremely unstable, and as they break down, they cause harm to the body. Though there is limited data on the average phytochemical intake among humans, however, researchers found that persons who eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables have higher phytochemical consumption. Below are the major groups of phytochemicals found in plant foods and how they benefit the human body.
Carotenoids are antioxidants that protect your body from damage. Carotenoids with health benefits include Alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin. Your body typically conveys all these types of carotenoids to vitamin A. This vitamin aids in the healthy functioning of your immune system and is necessary for eye health. Alpha- and beta-carotene can be found in yellow and orange foods such as carrots and papaya. Other common carotenoids include lutein, lycopene, and zeaxanthin.
Ellagic acid also functions as an antioxidant. It has anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting effects, and it could help with several chronic illnesses. Ellagic acid can be found in a variety of berries (raspberries, strawberries, and pomegranates) and other plant foods.
The flavonoid family includes a significant number of phytonutrients. They're present in a wide range of fruits and vegetables. This phytonutrient is high in anticancer and antioxidants properties. Flavonoids may also help lower the risk of heart diseases and asthma.
Flavonoids are divided into several subgroups, including:
Resveratol is beneficial to both cardiovascular and cognitive health. It has also been linked to increased blood flow to the brain. According to several studies, resveratrol may help to lower the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer as it acts as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Resveratrol is mostly found in grapes, berries, and dark chocolate.
Predominantly in cruciferous vegetables, glucosinolates are known to mitigate inflammation, regulate stress responses and metabolic function. Glucosinolates give cabbage, kale, and broccoli their flavor and odor.
Because their chemical structure is remarkably similar to that of estrogen, estrogen receptors in the body treat phytoestrogens as if they were estrogen when they enter the body. Phytoestrogen helps relieve hot flashes, prevent osteoporosis, fight breast cancer and improve heart health. Common sources of phytoestrogen include soy foods, beans, and sprouts.
The type of food we eat has a significant impact on our health and fitness. Generally, eating a wide range of colorful fresh organic foods is always healthier than eating processed meals. The real challenge is consuming these phytochemical-rich plant foods before they are processed and most of their beneficial properties are lost. Long periods of heating, as well as many types of food processing, can quickly degrade phytochemicals in foods. So to get the full benefits of phytochemicals, you have to make a conscious effort to eat a diet rich in diverse fresh fruits, vegetables, natural herbs, legumes, and whole grains.