Phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals or functional foods, are chemicals or nutrients found in plant foods. If you’ve never heard of them, you’re not alone. Unlike vitamins and minerals, which have long been touted for their health-giving properties, phytonutrients are just coming into the nutritional spotlight, and researchers are just beginning to discover their powerful health benefits. Phytonutrients’ most basic function is protecting the health of plants, not people.
Some guard against plant viruses, bacteria, and other threats. Others repel bugs and other predators. Yet research shows that these same nutrients are effective against human threats as well: when you eat plant foods, you get phytonutrient-powered protection against a whole range of health woes–and researchers are adding to the list each day.
Based on what’s known so far, phytonutrients appear to serve three major functions in the human body: they act as antioxidants; they regulate hormone levels; and they eliminate toxins. Most phytonutrients help fight disease by acting as antioxidants. They protect the body against free radicals–oxygen molecules that have lost an electron due to damage from sunlight, pollution, or other natural or environmental causes. Phytonutrients create a protective barrier between our body’s cells and free radicals.