14 Nutrients: Do You Know What They Do?Polyphenols, flavonols and antioxidants… You’ve probably heard of these nutritional terms, but do you know what they do and why they’re so important? These nutrients -- all of which you can find in raw, plant foods -- possess specific functions to help your body stay healthy by triggering the body’s protective and self-healing abilities. Polyphenols Polyphenols are micronutrients from plants and the most abundant source of antioxidants in your diet. They are categorized into four types based on their compound structure: phenolic acids, flavonoids, stilbenes and lignans. The complexity of the thousands of identified polyphenols, as well as the evidence for their role in the prevention of degenerative diseases related to oxidative stress is still being heavily researched; however, studies show that diets rich in plant polyphenols in the long term can help prevent the development of some cancers, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative disease. Fruits (plums and cherries) are the main sources of polyphenols, but you will also find them in vegetables (especially spinach and onions) and dry legumes. Polyphenols are responsible for the bitter taste of grapefruit and the vibrant color of a red apple. Phytochemicals Plants produce phytochemicals to protect themselves against external sources such as UV radiation, oxidation and bacteria. Although these bioactive chemicals are considered “non-essential” nutrients—meaning your body doesn’t need them to sustain life—research has shown phytochemicals can protect against cancer, heart disease and other chronic diseases. The truth is you’re probably already consuming phytochemicals in your daily diet, as they are found in most fruits, vegetables, beans and grains. Beta carotene (carrots, sweet potatoes), vitamin C (bell peppers, kale) and lycopene (tomatoes) are great sources in your everyday diet. Phytosterols Phytosterols, also known as plant sterols, have a similar molecular structure to cholesterol. One of the best benefits of phytosterols are lower cholesterol levels since they can slow down or stop the absorption of dietary cholesterol and cholesterol from the liver. Phytosterols are minimally absorbed by the small intestine, so they don’t enter the bloodstream; high amounts of cholesterol from animals, on the other hand, can increase blood cholesterol and lead to heart disease. Leafy green lettuce, cucumbers and pickles are excellent sources of phytosterols. Carotenoids Carotenoids are organic pigments found in plants that contribute to the yellow, orange and red colors in fruits and vegetables. Known for their antioxidant power, carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin can help prevent certain cancers and eye disease. One of the better-known carotenoids is beta-carotene, revered for its ability to turn into vitamin A—which the body uses heavily for everything from growing and repairing skin to forming bones and teeth to fighting infection to developing healthy eye tissues. Lutein and zeaxanthin absorb damaging blue light that enters the eye, which might further prevent eye disease. These two carotenoids can be found in green, leafy vegetables, while beta-carotene is prominent in carrots, pumpkins and sweet potatoes. Phenolic Compounds Phenolic compounds are important for the growth and reproduction of plants and an essential part of your diet. Their structures range from simple, low molecular weight compounds (non-flavonoids) to large, complex polyphenols (flavonoids), which make up nearly half of the more than 8,000 phenolic compounds. Known to possess strong antioxidant, anticarcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties, phenolic compounds help the body fight diseases such as cancer, specifically targeting tumor cells. You’ll find phenolic compounds in fruits such as apples, plums and guava, in vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spinach and beverages such as freshly squeezed prune or apple juice. Anthocyanins Part of the flavonoid family, anthocyanins are the water-soluble pigments that give fruits, vegetables and flowers their red, purple and blue color. Anthocyanins are odorless and have little flavor. Anthocyanin mixtures and extracts (not the pure compound) have been used throughout history to treat anything from hypertension to kidney stones to the common cold. Research also shows that anthocyanins help improve vision and blood circulation. To find foods rich in anthocyanin, just look for their vibrant hues in fruits such as blueberries, raspberries and cherries and vegetables like purple corn. Flavonols Also part of the flavonoid family, flavonols are bioactive compounds that have a diverse chemical structure and emit a pale yellow color. Quercetin is the most prominent flavonol in food: Studies show it accounts for about 75% of total flavonol daily intake, with myricetin and kaempferol making up the rest. Flavonols can be found in larger amounts in onions, broccoli, kale, apples and tea. Catechins Belonging to the flavonols group, catechins are natural phenols and antioxidants. Numerous studies show that catechins help fight off cancerous cells, although research is still being done to figure out the complexity and extent. Green tea is rich in catechins, which make up about 1/3 the weight of dried green tea leaves. However, do note that the Hallelujah Diet does not promote caffeinated beverages… but fear not! Catechins are also prevalent in fruits and vegetables such as blackberries, apples, pears and beans. Resveratrol Resveratrol is part of the stilbene group of polyphenol plant compounds. The antioxidant properties of polyphenols, in general, help protect the body against cancer and heart disease. Resveratrol may also stimulate production of nitric oxide, which relaxes muscle cells in the blood vessels in order to increase blood flow. Resveratrol can be found in foods you already include in your diet, like pistachios, grapes and blueberries. Ellagic acid Ellagic acid is a natural phenol with antioxidant, anti-mutagenic and anti-cancer properties. Plants produce ellagic acid to protect themselves from microbiological infection and pests. Some research shows that ellagic acid can bind with cancer-causing molecules, and make them inactive. Raspberries are a great source of ellagic acid—almost 90% of the ellagic acid in the raspberries is contained in its seeds. You’ll also find ellagic acid in blackberries, cranberries, pomegranates, walnuts and pecans. Antioxidants (ORAC values) The ORAC unit of measurement was developed by the National Institutes of Health. Whenever we talk about the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) values of food, we’re simply stating the unit of measurement for how many antioxidants the food item possesses. Antioxidants are hugely important to health—and prevention of illness—as they fight the free radical damage that occurs within your body naturally and by external disease-causing aggressors, such as smoke, pollution and other toxic substances. At the top of the anti-aging superfoods list, according to oracvalues.com, is Sumac bran, spices such as ground cloves, oregano and rosemary and acai fruit. Phytonutrients Phytonutrient is another name for phytochemicals (see above). “Phyto” comes from the Greek word meaning “plant.” Two phytonutrients that you should know about are ptserostilbene and glucoraphranin.
- Pterostilbene is a stilbene molecule with a very similar chemical structure to resveratrol. Belonging to the group of phytoalexins, which are agents produced by plants to fight infections, pterostilbene appears to have better absorption, as well as more potent antioxidant and anticancer properties than its cousin resveratrol. Find this phytonutrient in blueberries and grapes.
- Glucoraphanin is the phytonutrient that gives broccoli its superfood status. Glucoraphanin is a precursor in the body to sulforaphane, which contains strong anti-cancer and antimicrobial properties. From one broccoli to the next, the amount of glucoraphanin greatly varies, but this natural component is found in its highest levels in the cruciferous vegetable.