The Basics of Phytochemicals

Imagine thousands of compounds in foods and every one of them good for you. Of course, instead of imagining you could also read this brief overview on these helpful chemical compounds from plants.

By Kathryn Trim

2 of 2 1 | 2 > View on one page

The Optimum cereal line by Richmond, British Columbia-based Nature’s Path has seen dramatic results since adding a wide range of nutrients, including soy isoflavones to its products.

“The Optimum line has really paid off,” says Maria Emmer-Aanes, director of marketing. “It went from push to pull – from pushing the product, to customers asking for the product and stores calling us. Consumers are ready for this type of food – they’re educated and seeking better health.”


ActiVin, from San Joaquin Valley Concentrates
ActiVin, available to processors as a water-soluble powder, gives food and beverage products a resveratrol boost.

Since the discovery in red wine of the powerful stilbene aromatic resveratrol, a glass of vino has gone from being an indulgence to something many experts recommend for better health.

Resveratrol has been linked with a lengthy list of benefits, including fighting off cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis. It also could reduce cholesterol, regulate blood sugar and blood pressure, and it is known to act as an anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal agent.

Grape skin extracts such as those in OxyPhyte, by RFI Ingredients (, Blauvelt, N.Y., offer concentrates standardized and stabilized for use in a variety of foods and beverages. Resveratrol is also found in about 70 other species of plants, including peanuts and mulberries.

Resveratrol is suddenly getting noticed by processors, who are incorporating it into formulations. One example, Kashi, uses ActiVin, by San Joaquin Valley Concentrates (, Fresno, Calif. ActiVin is a GRAS water-soluble powder that can be added to the liquid portion of a food or beverage, or as a powder for dry-blending. It’s stable to heat, especially processes used in baking. Scores of studies suggest ActiVin helps heart, eye and joint health, among other benefits.

Another aromatic polyphenol finding increasing use in food applications is the antioxidant rosmarinic acid, from extracts of the rosemary plant. The compound also is a potent antimicrobial. Vitiva (, Markovci, Slovenia, makes AquaROX, a water-soluble rosmarinic acid.


Found in red- and purple-colored fruits and veggies such as berries and red cabbage, anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants. Anthocyanins have been shown to help promote healthy brain function and urinary tract health, balance blood sugar levels and improve vision, cardiovascular health and skin.

Additionally, these phytos (sometimes classed with flavonoids) are anti-angiogenic: they have the ability to reduce unwanted growth of blood vessels which feed tumor formation and may lead to varicose veins.

Decas Botanical Synergies offers no fewer than seven different cranberry-based ingredients for processors looking to boost their products' antioxidant levels.

OptiBerry, produced by InterHealth (, Benicia, Calif., is an antioxidant cocktail combining blueberry, strawberry, cranberry, wild bilberry, elderberry and raspberry extracts. Although it’s just emerging in the U.S. food and beverage industry, it is already in use in beverages in Japan.

Cranberries contains unique anthocyanidins called “A-linked Proanthocyanidins (PAC). “A-link PACs have anti-adhesion and antioxidant properties,” says Dan Souza, marketing manager of Decas Botanical Synergies (, Wareham, Mass. “Cranberry A-Type PACs help support urinary tract, gastrointestinal and oral health by inhibiting bacteria from adhering to cell walls. Many fruits and vegetables contain PACs, however only the cranberry A-type PACs have been shown to provide both anti-adhesion and antioxidant properties.”


Research has helped us “see” the vital role that two key carotenoids – lutein and its lesser known partner, zeaxanthin – play in eye health. These cousins of vitamin A, which make up the pigment in the macula of the eye, have been shown to help prevent cataracts as well as age-related macular degeneration. Acting as “sunglasses” for the macula, their main job is to filter out harmful blue light.

Lutein has been embraced by the industry and is included in meal replacement drinks, as well as Sunsweet prune juice.

Zeaxanthin, on the other hand, is a popular supplement yet to make a big transition into foods and beverages. But it’s a phyto to watch. It exists in the macula at double the rate of the superstar lutein. Kemin Health Products (, Des Moines, Iowa, provides both lutein and zeaxanthin from marigolds.

To meet the expected demand, several companies have created products that can easily be added to a range of food and beverages. BI Nutraceuticals (, Long Beach, Calif., also produces an all-natural version of zeaxanthin from marigolds, while DSM produces Optisharp, a pure, synthetic zeaxanthin identical in composition to that found in nature. DSM’s lutein and zeaxanthin are used in products from dressings and soy spreads to egg substitutes.


Carotenoids are not naturally water-soluble, so many companies rely on microencapsulation to allow for water dispersion.

In terms of processing, all carotenoids are sensitive to heat, says Robert Berman, senior marketing manager of new business development at DSM. “Our forms can be used with heat because we add antioxidants to protect the lutein and zeaxanthin, and can be used in beverages because we add ascorbic acid to protect them. We have versions soluble in both water and oil. Foods that could benefit from inclusion of these carotenoids include baked goods, cereals, beverages, spreads and dressings, dairy products, desserts, soups and juices.”

Other companies have products that combine the two carotenoids such as Xenagold, by Cognis (, Cincinnati.

Another popular carotenoid, lycopene, had enough research success to lead to use in a number of products. It’s a well-established heart-health additive, but received early attention for its protective properties against cancer (especially prostate).

A 2005 study revealed over half of Americans recognize lycopene, connecting it with positive effect for heart disease and cancer prevention.

LycoRed Inc. (, Fairfield, N.J., is a pioneer of naturally derived lycopene, beginning with the development of the high-lycopene species of tomato in Israel two decades ago. The company’s Lyco-Mato and Tomat-O-Red products are used in everything from cereal, beverages and dairy drinks to condiments and meat alternatives by processors and distributors such as Kashi, Bolthouse Farms and Trader Joe's.

2 of 2 1 | 2 > View on one page
Show Comments
Hide Comments

Join the discussion

We welcome your thoughtful comments.
All comments will display your user name.

Want to participate in the discussion?

Register for free

Log in for complete access.


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments