Phytonutrients 101 - Intro, Health Benefits & Food Sources

Ever wondered why phytonutrients are important in our diet? Discover the key findings behind phytonutrients, key benefits and food sources.
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2022

With the increasing popularity of plant-based diets, the term "phytonutrient" is becoming a topic of discussion among the community.

As someone who prefers to consume more fruits and vegetables in my diet, I have taken a keen interest in this crucial group of nutrients, which has been well-researched to provide many health benefits. Below are my findings on this all-important nutrient group.

What are Phytonutrients?

Phyto is the Greek word for plant. (1)

Hence, phytonutrients simply mean "plant-based nutrients".

They are commonly obtained from fruits and vegetables.

Phytonutrients protect plants from germs, fungi, and bugs.

Therefore, consuming these food items will be beneficial to our bodies as well. (2)

Classes of Phytonutrients

You will be surprised to know that there are over 100,000 types of phytonutrient and they can be classed in these 3 broad categories:

Fruits & Veggies

Herbs & Spices

Medicinal plants (3)

Types of Phytonutrients

You will find a common list of phytonutrients below:

  • Polyphenols
  • Terpenoids
  • Resveratrol
  • Flavonoids
  • Allicin
  • Carotenoids
  • Lutein
  • Glucosinolates
  • Lycopene
  • Phytosterols
  • Anthocyanines
  • w-3 fatty acids
  • Probiotics

Resveratrol is commonly found in purple fruits and vegetables.

Allicin is commonly found in white fruits and vegetables.

Carotenoids is commonly found in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables.

Lutein is commonly found in green fruits and vegetables.

Lycopene is commonly found in red fruits and vegetables.

Of course, there are a lot of other phytonutrients as well. (4, 5)

Health Benefits of Phytonutrients

The colour of the fruit and vegetable determines the type of phytonutrient that it has.

Purple/blue fruits and vegetables such as grapes, blueberries, eggplant, sweet potato, contain phytonutrients that promote brain health.

Yellow/Orange fruits and vegetables such as pineapples, corn, carrots, oranges, contain phytonutrients that promote vision health.

Red fruits and vegetables such as apples, red turnips, cranberries, tomatoes contain phytonutrients that promote heart health.

Green fruits and vegetables such as green tea, broccoli, kale, green peas contain phytonutrients that promote cellular health.

White fruits and vegetables such as mushrooms, garlic, onions, turnips, contain phytonutrients that promote bone and joint health. (4, 6)

Phytonutrients Index (PI)

food label

It refers to "the amount of colourful plant pigments and compounds in a food that help prevent disease and promote health".

  1. Look at the serving size and determine if this is your "typical" portion, as labels can be deceiving.

    For example, a cereal may state 3/4 cup serving when your typical portion is 1.5 cups.

    Worse still, it may state 2 servings while people typically consume the whole bottle.

    Have you ever seen 4 people sharing a pint of Haagen Dazs ice-cream? Hence, it is important to define the serving size.

  2. Are the calories high GL or low GL?

    What do you mean by GL?

    It refers to the glycemic load.

    The total amount of carbohydrates is less important than where they come from.

    If they are found in food with a low GL and high PI, they will have a very different effect on your appetite and weight than those foods that are quickly absorbed and have few nutrients and fiber.

    How do you know which foods have low GL and high PI?

    Just choose whole plant foods and you can't lose.

  3. Start with fiber.

    It is one of the main factors that determines the all-important glycemic load.

    It also gives you a clue about the phytonutrient index as well.

    Many packaged foods have no fiber.

    If convenience items such as soups or snacks are missing this key fiber factor, you should leave them on the shelf and not buy them.

  4. Look at total carbohydrates.

    Remember that it's the type of carbs that matter most.

    If they are from whole plant foods that contain a plenty of fiber or have a low GL, their effect is very different from fiberless foods.

    Therefore, the same amount of carbohydrates from a can of beans or from a can of coke affects the body in different ways.

To sum it all up

Look for food items with low GI (which means the carbohydrates enter your bloodstream slowly) and a high PI (rich in phytonutrients) (7)

Foods That Are High In Phytonutrients

  • Tomatoes, Potatoes, Citrus Fruits, Carrots
  • Broccoli, Bok Choy, Kale, Spinach
  • Garlic, Leek, Onions
  • Brown Rice, Barley, Quinoa
  • Almonds, Walnuts, Flaxseeds
  • Green Beans, Peas, Soy Beans
  • Black Coffee, Green Tea, Herbal Teas
  • Black Chocolates (8)

How Much Do You Need Daily?

According to the World Health Organisation, it is recommended for an individual to get at least 400 grams of fruits and vegetables or 5 servings of fruits and vegetables. Assuming one portion is 80 grams. (9)

If you are not sure about what is one serving, you can refer to this website.

Most importantly, your fruits and vegetables should come from these 5 colour spectrum, purple or blue, red, yellow or orange, green and white to ensure that you get all the essential phytonutrients that your body requires to function at its best.

5 colors spectrum fruits and veggies
  1. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Phyto- definition & meaning. Merriam-Webster.
    Retrieved March 6, 2022, from Link

  2. Metcalf, E. (n.d.). What are phytonutrients? types and food sources. WebMD.
    Retrieved March 6, 2022, from Link

  3. Levy, J. (2021, March 8). Phytonutrients types, top foods and benefits. Dr. Axe. Retrieved March 6, 2022, from Link

  4. Gupta, C., & Prakash, D. (2014, September). Phytonutrients as therapeutic agents. Journal of complementary & integrative medicine.
    Retrieved March 6, 2022, from Link

  5. Why phytonutrients? Nutrilite. (n.d.).
    Retrieved March 6, 2022, from Link
  6. Liu, R. H. (2003, September 1). Health benefits of fruit and vegetables are from additive and synergistic combinations of phytochemicals. OUP Academic.
    Retrieved March 6, 2022, from Link 

  7. Reading Labels: If You Really Have To Buy Something Processed: . drhyman.com. (2012, February).
    Retrieved March 6, 2022, from Link

  8. Phytonutrients – Nature's natural defense. Phytonutrients – Nature's Natural Defense - Unlock Food. (n.d.).
    Retrieved March 6, 2022, from Link

  9. World Health Organization. (n.d.). Healthy diet. World Health Organization.
    Retrieved March 6, 2022, from Link
Editor at Yeo International
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