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9.6: Phytochemicals

Phytochemicals are chemicals in plants that may provide some health benefit. Carotenoids are one type of phytochemical. Phytochemicals also include indoles, lignans, phytoestrogens, stanols, saponins, terpenes, flavonoids, carotenoids, anthocyanidins, phenolic acids, and many more. They are found not only in fruits and vegetables, but also in grains, seeds, nuts, and legumes.

Many phytochemicals act as antioxidants, but they have several other functions, such as mimicking hormones, altering absorption of cholesterol, inhibiting inflammatory responses, and blocking the actions of certain enzymes.

Phytochemicals are present in small amounts in the food supply, and although thousands have been and are currently being scientifically studied, their health benefits remain largely unknown. Also largely unknown is their potential for toxicity, which could be substantial if taken in large amounts in the form of supplements. Moreover, phytochemicals often act in conjunction with each other and with micronutrients. Thus, supplementing with only a few may impair the functions of other phytochemicals or micronutrients. As with the antioxidant vitamins, it is the mixture and variety of phytochemicals in foods that are linked to health benefits.