The Power of Produce: Phytochemicals

Marie Hegler,
Food Safety & Nutrition Agent

The summer months are most notable for their broad and diverse supply of seasonal produce. Strawberries, peaches, beans, cantaloupes, cucumbers, okra, squash, and tomatoes, and the list could go on. Whether you’ve grown them in your own garden or purchased them from a local grocery store, the perks of consuming produce are as vast as the varieties themselves.

Curbing the risk of heart disease, cancers, and other illnesses can be attributed in part to the power of produce. For decades, mothers have said, “Eat your fruits and vegetables!” Today, however, researchers are beginning to discover that the healing and preventative powers of produce are attributed to natural compounds known as phytochemicals.

These compounds are responsible for the colorful pigmentation of fruits and vegetables and offer protection from predators, pollution, and other harmful elements. Therefore, when you consume fruits and vegetables, you are ingesting these potent compounds, which can protect you from a variety of dangers and boost your immune system. Because the color of fruits and vegetables is indicative of the type of phytochemical present, it is important to eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetable.

Red

Lycopene is a pigment that gives fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes and watermelon, their red color. It is also known for its potent antioxidant properties. In fact, several studies suggest that consuming foods rich in lycopene may lower the risk of prostate cancer and cardiovascular disease. Papaya, grapefruit, guava, red cabbage, and red peppers all contain lycopene.

Orange

Alpha- and beta-carotene give foods like carrots and sweet potatoes their distinct orange color. The body converts these compounds into the active form of vitamin A, which helps keep your eyes, bones, and immune system healthy. Apricots, cantaloupe, mango, oranges, pumpkin, tangerines, and watermelon all contain carotenes.

Yellow & Green

Many yellow and green vegetables are good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, phytochemicals that may help slow the progress of age-related macular degeneration by protecting the eyes from damage due to light. Leafy greens are among the best sources of these phytochemicals. Other vegetables, including corn and beans, are good sources as well. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, provide compounds called indoles and isothiocyanates, which may help prevent certain types of cancer. Artichokes, collards, green peas, green peppers, green cabbage, kale, mustard greens, okra, Romaine lettuce, spinach, summer squash, turnip greens and zucchini are sources of lutein and zeaxanthin.

Blue & Purple/Deep Red

Anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins are responsible for providing the blue, purple, and deep-red hues found in fruits and vegetables. The antioxidant properties of these phytochemicals are most commonly associated with vision, brain, and heart functions as well as the possible prevention of obesity, diabetes, and certain cancers. Fruits and vegetables containing anthocyanins include beets, blackberries, black/red beans, black/red currents, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, eggplant, plums, raspberries, red apples, red cabbage, red grapes, red leaf lettuce, red onions, red radishes, and strawberries.

For more information see HGIC 4064, Antioxidants; HGIC 3529, Blueberry Basics; and HGIC 3537, Strawberry Basics.

Sources:

  1. American Cancer Society. (2013). Phytochemicals. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/herbsvitaminsandminerals/phytochemicals
  2. Fruit & Veggies More Matters. (2013). What Are Phytochemicals? http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org/what-are-phytochemicals

Page maintained by: Home & Garden Information Center

This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement of brand names or registered trademarks by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied, nor is any discrimination intended by the exclusion of products or manufacturers not named. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.