While most of us know that foods supply us with vitamins and minerals, fewer are up to date on the hundreds - in fact, thousands - of other chemical components in our foods, particularly those found in plant foods. These substances are referred to as phytochemicals, from the Greek word phyto, meaning plant." Phytochemicals are the compounds that give plant foods their color, odor, and flavor; they also serve as the plant's own self-defense system. Some may be familiar to you, such as chlorophyll, that incomparable green power in plants. Others are less well known, although the plants they live in are recognized as disease fighters - like kale and broccoli, which contain phytochemicals known as indoles, which have been shown to protect against a variety of cancers by making dangerous toxins in the body easier to excrete. The phytochemical allium, present in garlic, lowers cholesterol.
Phytochemicals are found in micro amounts, which is why one vegetable can contain so many. Yet, despite these micro quantities, they are highly advantageous to the body. Eating one carrot, for instance, can supply the full day's dosage of the important phytochemical beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. Among other things, beta-carotene helps to counterbalance the harmful effects of pollution, like cigarette smoke and other air-borne pollutants, on the body.
The moral of the phytochemical story is that your health is greatly enhanced by consuming a wide range of fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors - and the fresher and less processed, the better. That means that a raw apple is prized over processed applesauce (especially the kind with sugar added!). One of the benefits of eating fresh salads is that in one bowl you can have a banquet of gorgeous and life-saving phytochemicals. Think green (leafy vegetables, including the dark greens) . . . and red (tomatoes contain coumarins, which prevent blood clots, and lycopene - important for prostate health) . . . and orange/yellow (carrots, of course, as well as yams and squash, contain lutein, a carotenoid, which is important for the eyes) . . . and purple (purple cabbage, grapes, black raspberries) . . . and every other color! Eating a rainbow of color, you'll be enriching your body with the best medicine known to humans.