Health and Nutrition

Are We Deficient in Phytonutrients?

Gregg Carroll - Thursday, February 21, 2013

"On average, 8 out of 10 Americans (76%) have a phytonutrient gap" — America’s Phytonutrient Report: Quantifying the Gap

"Phytonutrients" is the latest buzz word in the health and nutraceutical industry. But for an average consumer the word is simply "fight–o–what?!". The name may sound complex, but phytonutrients are indeed "fight–o" nutrients in the sense that these plant compounds help fight against disease and protect us from illness.

Fruits and vegetables are the cornerstone of good health, and increased intake is linked to decreased risk for diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Scores and scores of scientific publications conclusively associate the benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption to the presence of vitamins, minerals, and also non-nutrient components, phytonutrients.

What Are Phytonutrients?

Phytonutrients are biologically complex chemicals, exclusive to plants, and are produced as a part of its defense mechanism. Phytonutrients are naturally produced by plants in order to survive harsh environmental conditions, ultraviolet damage form the sun, and to develop resistance against fungal attacks and bacteria. Phytonutrients are also known as phytochemicals, because these compounds do not fall under the macronutrient or micronutrient food category. It is estimated about 5,000 phytochemicals have been identified so far, and researchers say that a large percentage of them still remain to be identified.

Health Benefits of Phytonutrients

Studies show that the potent anti-cancer and antioxidant activity demonstrated by fruits and vegetables are attributed to the combinations of phytonutrients present in them. Phytonutrients are found to work in combination, and display a synergistic action to aid in the following health benefits:

• Boosts the immune system

• Anti-carcinogenic

• Heart-protective effects

• Powerful antioxidants

• Lower the risk of degenerative diseases

• Reduces platelet aggregation and thereby blood clots

• Regulate blood pressure

• Anti-inflammatory effects

Examples of Phytonutrients

Phytonutrients are available in abundance in all plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, as well as sea vegetables. The table below is the partial list of phytonutrients present in commonly consumed foods:

Phytonutrient Food Health Benefit
Allicin Onions and garlic Eliminates toxins
Anthocyanins Red and blue colored fruits (blueberries, raspberries) and vegetables Prevents clots, fights inflammation and allergies, heart protective effect
Carotenoids Bright orange, yellow coloured fruits and vegetables such as carrots, parsley Antioxidant and anti-cancer effects
Flavonoids Whole grains, herbs and spices Antioxidants and anti-aging
Indoles Dark greens like broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, etc. Anti-cancer effect, antioxidants
Lignins Seeds such as flax seeds and whole grains Lower cholesterol, antioxidants
Phenols Whole grains, nuts and seeds Protects brain health, antioxidant, lower cholesterol, prevents premature aging
Phytosterols (sigmasterol, campesterol) Nuts and seeds Lower cholesterol, promote bone health

* Table adapted from Nutrition to reduce cancer risk, Stanford Cancer Institute, Stanford Medicine Center

Phytonutrient Gaps in Our Diet

Despite awareness about their health benefits, there is poor intake of fruits and vegetables by the majority of us. This is evident from the recent study on the phytonutrient intake by adults in the U.S. The study analyzed the food consumption data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys for 2003 - 2006, and phytonutrient concentration data from USDA, to estimate phytonutrient intake. The report focused on selected phytonutrients – carotenoids, flavonoids, phenolics, isothiocyanates, isoflavones and allicin — that were grouped into color categories. Based on the color categories, the study reported that 76% were deficient in phytonutrients. The split based on colors showed that 69% of Americans fall short in green, 74% in red, 83% in white, 76% in purple/ blue and 80% in yellow or orange coloured phytonutrients sources.

Taking the cue from this study, if our daily meal is not inclusive of colored and varied plant foods such as dark greens, nuts, whole grains, colored fruits and vegetables and seeds, there is a clear and definite lack of phytonutrients in our diets.

How Can You Boost Your Phytonutrient Intake?

It is not difficult to include phytonutrients in our diets. If our diets are predominantly plant-based, the amount of phytonutrients in the diet automatically rises. Other ways to increase the phytonutrient intake include:

• Consuming a variety of coloured vegetables and fruits (yellow, red, purple, green and white) provides phytonutrients from each food group category in the plant kingdom.

• Include a variety of nuts, seeds and whole grains.

• Choose organic produce, the phytonutrient availability is higher than conventional produce.

• Grow your own indoor or outdoor garden.

• Include a variety of herbs and spices.

Although phytonutrients are an essential part of the health equation, there are no DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) established as yet. A practical way to ensure that we don't fall short of them is to consume plant foods in their most wholesome form. By creating a menu plan that accommodates foods from different colors is an easy and simple approach to ensure that we getting sufficient quantities of phytonutrients.

Easy Phytonutrient Breakfast Recipe


¼ cup Love Raw Foods™ Sproutable Barley

¼ cup Love Raw Foods™ Quinoa

4-5 Medjool dates

1 cup Love Raw Foods™ Rolled Oats

¼ tsp. cinnamon

Fruits, nuts and seeds of choice can be used as a topping.

Method of preparation:

1. In a sauce pan bring water to boil and cook the barley until done. Drain and shake off excess water.

2. Cook quinoa with a pinch of salt, cover and simmer.

3. Soak the dates in boiling water for a minute. Allow it to cool, pit the dates and chop them into small bits.

4. Cook oats in a separate sauce pan until done, while still in medium heat, add cooked barley, quinoa and dates pieces to the oats and stir well.

5. Spoon in breakfast bowls, add cinnamon, blueberries, flax seeds, walnuts for topping and serve warm.

(Alternatively, quinoa and barley can be cooked ahead and stored in refrigerator for up to 5 days to save time)

Phytonutrient advantages:

• Barley provides the phytonutrient lignan which exhibits anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic effects.

• Quinoa provides the phytonutrient polysaccharides (arabinans, rhamnogalacturonans; hydroxycinnamic and hydroxybenzoic acids). Polysaccharides bind with toxins and excrete them from body and also lower cholesterol.

• Oats provides the phytonutrient beta-glucan which lowers cholesterol and provides avenanthramides prevents plaque formation.

• Medjool dates are rich in phytonutrients – carotenoids and phenolics that demonstrate potent antioxidant activity.

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