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Phytochemicals, The “Vitamins” of the 21st Century

Phase 2

Avast number of substances found in fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices are known to promote health and fight disease. Collectively, these compounds are referred to as phytochemicals and include compounds such as carotenes, flavonoids, polyphenols, dietary fiber, enzymes, sterols and isothiocyanates. Although they work in harmony with nutrients, phytochemicals exert considerably greater activity against many underlying disease processes. The growing popularity of natural products rich in or containing specific phytochemicals signifies the growing trend clearly indicating that phytochemicals are the “vitamins” of the future.

Expanding the Realm of Nutrients

Nutrients are classically defined as substances that either provide nourishment or are necessary for body functions or structures. Historically, only the following have been considered as nutritional categories:

• Vitamins

• Minerals

• Fatty acids

• Protein

• Carbohydrates

• Water

That represents a very limited view of human nutrition. What about all of the other compounds found in food? Where do they fall within this classification system? The simple answer is that they don’t and the system needs to be expanded to recognize the critical role that these non-nutrient components of food play in human health.

One area of research in particular is completely revolutionizing our understanding of the role that phytochemicals play in our health. Epigenetics involves looking at how the expression of our genetic code can be influenced by nutritional and environmental factors. The findings clearly indicate that there are many phytochemicals that hugely influence gene expression. It is through epigenetic research that we may be prescribing mixtures of phytochemicals to address specific gene expression. For example, research already is showing that a long list of phytochemicals are capable of influencing the expression of genetic factors involved in cancer, inflammation, cholesterol manufacture and other underlying mechanisms of many chronic diseases.

As the epigenetic research expands and deepens it will undoubtedly fuel the growth of natural products containing active phytochemicals. Many of these products are already on the shelves of health food stores today.

Phytochemicals & Our Antioxidant System

One area of use of phytochemical-based products is as antioxidants. Based on extensive data, it appears that a combination of antioxidants will provide greater antioxidant protection than a large dosage of any single nutritional antioxidant. The reason being is that nutrient antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, zinc and selenium generally have a very narrow range of activity against a single type of free radical.

Further, consumers do not yet fully understand the term antioxidant and there are many distinctions that the natural product industry must help them comprehend. Consumers do not know that the term antioxidant is a general term and that there are many different types of antioxidants. One useful analogy helpful in explaining the antioxidant system is to liken it to musical instruments. To make the best music, our antioxidant system should be a beautifully conducted symphony. The missing pieces in this performance are often phytochemicals. The plant-based antioxidants work in conjunction with the nutrient antioxidants to fill out the orchestra. Both are important, but properly combined they will help the symphony produce beautiful music, rather than uncoordinated noise.

Here are some basic guidelines to ensure complete antioxidant protection: In addition to consuming a diet rich in plant foods, especially fruits and vegetables, and taking a high potency multiple vitamin and mineral formula, it makes extremely good sense to rely on phytochemical-rich natural products to ensure broader antioxidant protection. Three critical examples of plant-based antioxidants are carotenes, flavonoidrich extracts and green drinks. These supplements provide plant pigments packed with huge health benefits including an extremely broad-spectrum of antioxidant protection.


Carotenes represent the most widespread group of naturally occurring pigments in nature. More than 400 carotenes have been characterized, but only about 30 to 50 are believed to have vitamin A activity. Beta-carotene was long thought of as the most active of the carotenes, because it has a higher provitamin A activity than other carotenes. However, considerable research shows that there are other carotenes that exhibit far greater antioxidant effects and health benefits, such as lutein, lycopene and astaxanthin. A good strategy for daily supplementation is to get a minimum of 1-2 mg of each of these important carotenes (more for specific health issues). For example, in macular degeneration the dosage recommendation for lutein is 15 mg.


Flavonoids exert an even greater range of effects. Besides lending color to fruits and flowers, flavonoids are responsible for many of the medicinal properties of foods, juices, herbs and various natural products. More than 8,000 flavonoid compounds have been characterized and classified according to their chemical structure. Flavonoids are sometimes called “nature’s biological response modifiers” because of their anti-inflammatory, antiallergic, antiviral and anticancer properties.

Procyanidolic oligomers (PCOs) are one of the most beneficial groups of plant flavonoids and are found in grape seed and pine bark extracts. In addition to general health benefits, these extracts have shown significant benefits in the following health conditions:

• Asthma

• Atherosclerosis, hypertension, meta bolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes

• Attention deficit disorder

• Male infertility

• Osteoarthritis

• Periodontal disease

• Varicose veins, venous insufficiency and capillary fragility

• Visual function, retinopathy and macular degeneration
Green Drinks

The term “green drinks” refers to green tea and a number of commercially available products containing dehydrated barley grass, wheat grass or algae sources, such as chorella or spirulina.

Mixing with water or juice re-hydrates these formulas. These products—packed full of phytochemicals, especially carotenes and chlorophyll—are more convenient than trying to sprout and grow your own source of greens. An added advantage is that they tend to taste better than, for example, straight wheatgrass juice.

The green foods are particularly rich in natural fat-soluble chlorophyll, the green pigment that converts sunlight to chemical energy in plants, algae and some microorganisms. Like the other plant pigments, chlorophyll also possesses significant antioxidant and anticancer effects.

As far as product selection and dosage goes, one general recommendation for your customers is to have them look at a product’s stated ORAC value. Although there are many categories of antioxidants, researchers often measure antioxidant activity according to its ORAC value (oxygen radical absorbance capacity). In general, the higher the ORAC value, the more capable that food is of exerting antioxidant protection against age-related conditions. The average North American diet provides less than 1,000 ORAC units per day. However, nutritional experts recommend an intake of 3,000 to 6,000 ORAC units daily, from a variety of sources. Many green drinks are able to contribute mightily to a high daily ORAC intake.


The study of foods is a dynamic and exciting field, especially in the area of phytochemicals. Every year, additional phytochemicals are discovered that show remarkable health-promoting effects. These discoveries are revolutionizing the view of human nutrition and paving the way for harnessing these benefits through the use of natural products rich in these phytochemicals. Already, some of the best-selling supplements within the natural product industry as well as the functional food category exemplify these discoveries.

Michael T. Murray, ND, is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on natural medicine. He is a graduate, former faculty member and serves on the Board of Regents of Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. The author of more than 30 books on health nutrition, Murray is also director of product development and education for Natural Factors Nutritional Products. For more information, visit www.doctormurray.com.

Flavonoids as “Tissue-Specific Antioxidants”

Because certain flavonoids concentrate in specific tissues or cells in the body, it is possible to take flavonoids that target specific health conditions. This chart can help identify which flavonoid or flavonoid-rich extract is most appropriate for your customer. There is tremendous overlap among the mechanisms of action and benefits of flavonoid-rich extracts— the key is to provide a recommendation more specific to your customer’s personal needs.

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