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Introduction to phytochemicals

What are phytochemicals and how do they influence the foods we eat? This article explains the characteristics that phytochemicals are responsible for.

Phytochemicals are non-nutrient compounds found in plant-derived foods which have biological activity in the body.

Phyto means ‘plant’.

Phytochemicals are responsible for many well-known characteristics of food, such as taste, aroma and colour. For example, phytochemicals are responsible for the:

  • Burning sensation of hot peppers
  • Pungent flavour of garlic
  • Dark red colour of tomatoes, capsicum, watermelon and berries

Foods containing phytochemicals

Did you know that foods contain an enormous range of phytochemicals – and there is still much more to discover!

Plant foods contain thousands of naturally occurring phytochemicals and it seems likely that each plant food contains an array of different phytochemicals. For example, broccoli may contain up to 10,000 phytochemicals.

For some years now, researchers have been working on the wide variety of phytochemicals in food and the possible role they may play in supporting health and well-being. Researchers have only scratched the surface and it is clear that there is much more to learn.

The table below displays a range of foods that contain various types of phytochemicals.

Colour Phytochemicals Foods
Red Anthocyanins, lycopene Beets, cherries, cranberries, radishes, strawberries, tomatoes, watermelon
White-brown Allicin, allyl sulfides Bananas, cauliflower, garlic, ginger, mushrooms, onions, parsnips
Orange-yellow Beta-carotene, limonene Apricots, carrots, lemons, mangoes, oranges, papayas, pineapple, pumpkin
Blue-purple Anthocyanins, ellagic acid, phenolics Blackcurrants, blueberries, eggplant, plums, purple figs, raisins, purple grapes
Green Beta-carotene, lutein, indoles Artichokes, avocados, broccoli, cabbage, cucumber, limes, okra, peas, spinach
Are phytochemicals a topic you have encountered before? You might recognise some of the names of the phytochemicals, for example – beta-carotene! Reflect on why understanding what phytochemicals are in different foods is important to health.
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