What are phytonutrients, how do they work in the body, and what foods contain them?

Phytonutrients (also referred to as phytochemicals) are compounds found in plants. They serve various functions in plants, helping to protect the plant's vitality. For example, some phytonutrients protect the plant from UV radiation while others protect it from insect attack.

Not only do phytonutrients award benefit to the plants but they also provide benefits to those who enjoy plant food. That's because they have health-promoting properties including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and liver-health-promoting activities.

Fruits and vegetables are concentrated sources of phytonutrients; other plant foods like whole grains, legumes/beans, nuts and seeds, and herbs and spices also contain phytonutrients. Since many phytonutrients also serve as the pigment that gives foods their deep hues, you can identify many phytonutrient-rich foods by looking for colorful foods; for example, look for foods that are blue or purple like blueberries, blackberries and red cabbage (rich in flavonoids); yellow-orange foods like carrots, winter squash, papaya, and melon (rich in beta-carotene); red or pink foods like tomatoes, guava, and watermelon (rich in lycopene); and green foods like kale, spinach, and collard greens (rich in chlorophyll). Yet, since not all phytonutrients give color, it's important to not overlook some off-white foods as well—for example, garlic, onions, and leeks are rich in powerful sulfur-containing phytonutrients.

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