The health benefits of phytochemicals
Phytonutrients, the chemicals that help plants defend against environmental challenges, such as damage from pests or ultraviolet light, appear to provide humans with protection as well. Mounting research shows their effectiveness in preventing and treating a range of conditions including everything from cancer and heart disease to diabetes and high blood pressure. But current law dictates that if anyone advertises health benefits without FDA approval, it is automatically considered an illegal health claim, even for everyday foods, such as walnuts.
Phytochemicals are thought to be responsible for much of the disease protection granted by diets high in fruits, vegetables, beans, cereals, and plant-based beverages such as tea and wine, according to a University of California, Davis report (http://chnr.ucdavis.edu/content/Fac…).
Although it has become widely accepted that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses, scientists have only recently begun researching the effects of the different phytonutrients those foods contain.
Previous evidence has come from observations of cultures that eat plant-based diets and have lower rates of certain types of cancer and heart disease. The relatively low rates of breast and endometrial cancers in some Asian cultures, for example, are credited partly to dietary habits. These cancers are much more common in the United States, possibly because the typical American diet is higher in fat and lower in fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains, according to American Cancer Society.
Many experts suggest that people can reduce their risk of cancer significantly by eating the foods that contain phytonutrients, according to American Cancer Society (http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/Tre…). Evidence shows that they may work by helping to prevent the formation of potential carcinogens, blocking the action of carcinogens on their target organs or tissue, or acting on cells to suppress cancer development.
Research suggests that flavonoids, the most diverse group of phytochemicals, may be a key phytochemical group that contributes to the reduced mortality rates observed in people consuming high levels of plant-based foods, according to the UC Davis report. In the Zutphen Elderly Study, myocardial infarction was found to decrease as falvonoid intake increased. Similarly, the Seven Countries Study, which compared the diets of men living in various Western countries including the U.S., suggested that consumption of flavonoids was responsible for 25 percent of the observed difference in mortality rates in the different countries.
University of Minnesota Hormel Institute researchers say phytonutrients could be used in effective cancer prevention therapy, so much so that they eventually aim to develop phytochemical-derived anticancer drugs, Dr. Sigang Dong told The Austin Daily Herald (http://www.austindailyherald.com/20…).
“In the future, personalized prevention methods using photochemical could have a crucial role in cancer prevention, especially in high-risk populations,” Dong said. “We will continue our rigorous research in identifying molecular targets and aim for conducting human studies with phytocehemicals – this would provide the path for an enhanced approach to personalized cancer prevention.”
Evidence favoring the health benefits of phytonutrients is growing every day, so much so that the biotech industry is already researching transgenic and non-transgenic ways to vastly increase the phytonutrient levels in plants that already contain high levels of the chemicals, according the 2009 book Recent Advances in Biotechnology(http://books.google.com/books?id=Sl…).
Yet, even as the science bounds ahead, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration refuses to allow food producers to put the facts on their labels.
The agency has structured the rules to categorize anything that treats or prevents disease as a drug. If you eat walnuts, which are shown to lower high cholesterol – according to Natural News, the FDA declares your walnuts to be a drug. Furthermore, if anything is advertised as providing health benefits without FDA approval, it’s automatically considered to be an “unapproved drug”, even if it’s a common, everyday food like walnuts, cherries, grapes or orange (http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/Enforcemen…).
Shockingly, even references to peer-reviewed scientific studies are a no-no without FDA permission. So if you sell walnuts, and your website merely links to such studies, then you can be threatened, arrested, imprisoned and fined millions of dollars by the FDA for selling “unapproved drugs.”
The Alliance for Natural Health, a non-profit organization committed to protecting integrative medicine, is fighting these FDA mandates with The Free Speech About Science Act. The congressional bill, HR 4913, is designed to stop government censorship of truthful, scientific health claims about natural foods and herbs, and restore free speech to natural health). If the bill passes, it will allow manufacturers and producers to reference peer-reviewed, scientific studies that highlight the health benefits of food products that they grow or sell.
Some researchers estimate up to 40,000 phytonutrients will someday be fully catalogued and understood. In just the last 30 years, many hundreds of these compounds have been identified and are currently being investigated for their health-promoting qualities, according to The George Mateljan Foundation for the World’s Healthiest Foods.
Phytonutrients are classified by their chemical structure and categorized into families based on the similarities in their structures. The phenols, or polyphenols is one family that has received attention in the scientific literature. They include the anthocyanidins, which give blueberries and grapes their dark blue and purple color, and the catechins, found in tea and wine, which provide the bitter taste as well as the tawny coloring in these foods (http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?…).
Flavonoids are also commonly considered phenols, although the term “flavonoids” can refer to many phytonutrients. Isoflavones are usually categorized as members of this family. They are found in soy, kudzu, red clover, flax and rye, and have been researched extensively for their ability to protect against hormone-dependent cancers, such as breast cancer.
Other phytonutrients include the organosulfur compounds, such as the glucosinolates and indoles from brassica vegetables like broccoli, and the allylic sulfides from garlic and onions, all of which have been found to support our ability to detoxify noxious foreign compounds like pesticides and other environmental toxins.
ensure that people get an adequate amount of phytochemical compounds.
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that taking phytochemical supplements is as helpful as consuming the fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains from which they are taken, according to the American Cancer Society (http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/Tre…). So, the best choice, according to O Magazine, is to head to the local farmers’ market for the season’s freshest produce packed with those precious chemicals. Typically, fruit travels more than 675 miles before hitting your table and it is leeching phytonutrients all the way.
And don’t forget to look beyond produce to the other phytonutrient-dense foods like beans and spices.
Beans are a miracle food, according to The Daily Times. They lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar and insulin production, promote digestive health, and protect against cancer. If you think of fiber, protein, and antioxidants and immediately think whole grains, meat, and fruit, think again – beans offer all three in a single package.
Turmeric, ginger, coriander, cumin and fennel are just a few of the spices containing phytonutrients, according to The Detroit News. Cinnamon has been found to help control blood sugar and improve insulin resistance in diabetics. Paprika may help raise good cholesterol, and ginger, coriander and cumin may promote healthy digestion.