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

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The nearly 10,000 known phytochemicals are divided into a number of classes, subclasses and sub-subclasses. This can be confusing; dictionaries of known phytochemicals take up about 1,000 pages and cost hundreds of dollars.

For the most part, the several main classes of functional compounds commonly focused on in processing include carotenoids, phytosterols, aromatics (including phenols, stilbenes and lignans), flavonoids (such as flavonols and isoflavones), cyonates (ie., anthocyanins) and terpenes (limonoids).

The alphabet soup of these compounds may be dizzying but so is the growing recognition of their benefits to health. Thousands of studies suggest phytochemicals may help our bodies fight against cancer, cardiovascular disease, improve brain function, control inflammation, impact women’s health issues and more.


Also known as plant sterols, these top the list of popular phytos, especially for their proven cardioprotective properties. Phytosterols can be absorbed in the body in place of cholesterol. Studies show diets with high levels of these cholesterol analogs can lead to an 8 to 12 percent lower overall cholesterol, especially LDL cholesterol. These changes usually can be detected in as little as two to three weeks after incorporation into the diet.


Phytosterols are not naturally water soluble. However, Corowise, by Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. (, as well as others such as Vegepure by Cognis (, Cincinnati, Ohio, are water dispersible.

As one of the few phytos actually given the “green light” by the FDA, direct claims such as “lowers cholesterol and LDL levels” and “may reduce the risk heart disease” can be attributed to a phytosterol-containing product as long at it meets FDA guidelines.

Phytosterols are appearing in a number of products, including beverages, Orowheat breads, Nature Valley’s Healthy Heart trail bars, Rice Dream Heart Wise rice drink, Take Control spread and others. “Consumers are responding well to products with added sterols,” says Ray Crockett, director of communications for Minute Maid (, Atlanta, noting the company’s Heart Wise Orange Juice with Corowise plant sterols is one of its top sellers. “Many people facing health issues heard plant sterols can help and so look for our product.”


Found in everything from berries and broccoli to tea and chocolate, flavonoids are powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants help protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals and may fight off cancer, heart disease, inflammation and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

One of the hottest flavonoids in food and beverage right now ironically is found in a plant that has been revered for its preventative power in Asian cultures for centuries – green tea. Besides its antioxidant properties, it also has been shown to lower blood sugar and cholesterol and even promote weight loss; increasing energy and thermogenesis and retarding adipose (fat) cell growth and fat absorption in the intestine.


Catechins are stable under conditions typical to beverage manufacturing. DSM suggests the addition of antioxidants (for example ascorbic acid) to improve stability and shelf-life in some food and beverage products.

One of the most well-studied phytochemicals in this good-for-you-brew is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). DSM Nutrition Products (, Parsippany, N.J., produces Teavigo, an EGCG isolate for use in foods and beverages.

ECGC can be effective on its own, but Euromed USA (, Pittsburgh, takes a combination approach with its eMed-GTE, a combination of phenolics and catechins, including EGCG. “Our thought is to keep it close to nature, preserve the profile of the catechins naturally in green tea. There are chemicals in tea that are complimentary and create a synergistic effect,” explains Guy Woodman, director of sales. Processors also are synergizing phytochemicals by carefully mixing their natural sources.

Jasper’s Wild Blue Berry Green Tea combines Euromed’s eMed-GTE with antioxidants in green tea plus anthocyanidins in blueberry extract. The long-chain anthocyanidins allow for a more sustained release that preserves the other antioxidants.


Isoflavones crown the pyramid of phytos that is the flavonoid class. (Flavonoids may be the largest category of phytochemicals, laying claim to most of the ones commonly studied – and heard of.) Isoflavone phytoestrogens from soy could be the most researched phytochemical in the world, with hundreds of published studies to date. Dozens of studies in the 1990s alone focused on the possible easing of menopause symptoms.

Moreover, soy isoflavones are being examined for possible benefits to: heart health, cancer, PMS, osteoporosis, improved cognition, protection from UV damage and aging, and even improved sleep. Soy isoflavones are a popular ingredient to the food and beverage industry, with the global isoflavone market being valued at around $100 billion.

Soylife isoflavones from Acatris Inc. (, Minneapolis, are added to several products, including Arrowhead Mills’ Perfect Harvest Cereal and Flour, Organic Plus Oatmeal, Nature’s Path Foods Inc.’s Organic Soy Plus Cereal and Organic Optimum Power Waffles and Mama Rosie’s Spinach and Cheese Ravioli/Manicotti. Acatris incorporates the complete spectrum of natural soy compounds, including 40 additional supporting nutrients that may help increase efficacy. SoyLife is stable for baking and extrusion.

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