Phytonutrients: The Chemicals of Health

Did you know that we need about 9-13 servings of plant foods PER DAY if we want to prevent chronic disease? A serving is 1/2 cup of cooked veggies, one cup raw leafy greens, or one medium sized piece of fruit. Phytonutrients from plant foods are the chemicals that make up the color of the plant. They are not a macronutrient such as fat, protein, or carbohydrate nor are they a micronutrient such as a vitamin or mineral. They are entirely different constituents that plants use to protect themselves from their harsh environment. When a plant is stressed in its environment (such as from weather, insects, etc) it makes even more phytochemicals to protect itself. When phytonutrients are consumed, they protect the cells of the human body from harmful free radicals much like they protect the plant. This is why eating organic provides greater health benefits as the plant is forced to protect itself in its environment, versus it being protected by synthetic chemicals. Wild plants are hard to come by in your local grocery store these days, however, when found they should definitely be looked at as a prized possession. Wild blueberries, for example, can be found in the freezer isle and provide much more phytonutrients than standard blueberries.

The rate at which research is discovering new plant phytochemicals is astounding. Isoflavones from soy, carotenoids from carrots, catechins in green tea, polyphenols in raw cacao, glucosinolates in broccoli, and carnosol in rosemary are just a few (Kines, 2018). There are so many more that we aren’t even aware of yet. They help to regulate gene expression, including turning on the genes that help us burn more fat and age at a slower rate due to the protection they offer to our cells. They contain powerful antioxidants and in the right quantities will protect the human body from chronic disease. Yet, most of us aren’t eating enough of these beautiful, powerful jewels.

Each phytonutrient comes packed with different health benefits, meaning we need to eat the rainbow when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Radishes, for example, are rich in anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, gastrointestinal health and detoxification prompting nutrients. There are also synergistic benefits of combining certain phytonutrients, for example adding lemon juice to spinach makes the iron more absorbable, and combining turmeric with black pepper and an oil helps the curcumin from turmeric get absorbed into the blood stream. Below is a list to help guide you on your journey to getting more phytonutrients in your diet on a daily basis.

Red Foods: Apples, beets, beans, bell peppers, blood orange, cranberries, cherries, grapefruit, goji berries, grapes, onions, plums, pomegranate, potatoes, radicchio, radishes, raspberries, strawberries, red pepper, cayenne pepper, rhubarb, tomato, watermelon.

Red Food Benefits: Cancer prevention, lowering inflammation, protect cells, support GI health, support detoxification pathways, balance hormones, heart health.

Orange Foods: Sweet potato, yam, tangerine, orange, pumpkin, turmeric, carrots, apricots, mango, nectarine, bell pepper, cantaloupe, papaya, persimmons, squash.

Orange Food Benefits: Cancer prevention, anti-bacterial, immune boosting, cell protection, reproductive health, skin health, Vitamin A.

Yellow Foods: Apple, Asian pear, banana, bell pepper, ginger root, lemon (peel), millet, pineapple, starfruit, summer squash, butternut squash.

Yellow Food Benefits: Cancer protection, lower inflammation, cell protection, cognition, eye, heart, skin, and vascular health.

Green Foods: Apples, artichoke, asparagus, avocado, bamboo, bean sprouts, bell pepper, bitter melon, bok choy, brussels sprouts, broccoli, broccolini, broccoli sprouts, cabbage, celery, cucumber, green beans, pear, green tea, leafy greens such as chard, collards, dandelion, turnip greens, beet greens, lettuce, kale, spinach, limes, okra, olives, pears, snow peas, snap peas, watercress, parsley, cilantro, zucchini.

Green Food Benefits: Cancer protection, lower inflammation, brain health, cell protection, skin, hormone, heart, and liver health.

Blue/Black/Purple Foods: Purple bell pepper, blueberry, blackberry, boysenberries, huckleberries, marionberries, cabbage, purple carrots, purple cauliflower, black raddish, eggplant, figs, grapes, kale, olives, plums, potatoes (purple), prunes, raisins, black rice.

Blue/Black/Purple Food Benefits: Cancer protection, lower inflammation, brain health, cell protection, cognitive health, heart and liver health.

White/Tan/Brown Foods: Apples, applesauce, beans, cauliflower, coconut, dates, garlic, ginger, jicama, legumes, mushrooms, nuts, onions, pears, sauerkraut, seeds of all kinds, shallots, tahini, gluten free whole grains.

White/Tan/Brown Food Benefits: Cancer protection, anti-microbial, cell protection, GI health, heart health, hormone balancing, liver health.

Some tips on selecting plant foods with higher levels of nutrients and phytochemicals:

  • Eat seasonally

  • Eat foods fresh (broccoli, kale and other vegetables lose their nutrients significantly within 24 hours of harvest)

    • Shop from farmer’s markets, join a CSA (Community Shared Agriculture), start a garden

  • Learn more about edible wild plants and weeds in your area (via books and wild food tours)

  • Consume nutrient & phytonutrient rich varieties more often:

    • avocados

    • artichokes

    • asparagus

    • colorful corn

    • whole carrots (not baby) with tops on – orange, purple, red & yellow

    • eats beets (red/purple) and their greens

    • consume more sweet potatoes vs. white potatoes

    • deep red, smaller tomatoes (cherry, grape)

    • cauliflower

    • kale

    • broccoli

    • cabbage

    • Brussels Sprouts

    • mustard greens

  • Greens

    • Select more rare varieties (dandelions vs. spinach, purslane vs. lettuce, arugula, radicchio)

    • Select bitter greens (higher calcium content in bitter greens) & tart/sour greens

    • Select darker color greens or those with some red, purple or reddish brown coloration

    • Select whole, unpackaged greens that have more loosely wrapped leaves

  • Onions & Garlic

    • Eat more scallions (green onions (scallions) are over 100 times higher in phytonutrients as white onions)

    • Consume shallots, leeks (with greens), garlic and onion chives

    • When consuming garlic, slice/mince/press and let sit for 10 minutes prior to cooking

  • Fruits:

    • Consume varieties of apples such as: Cortland, Granny Smith, Fuji Honeycrisp, Liberty, Northern Spy, Spartan and others (less common varieties in Farmer’s Markets, U-Pick)

    • Eat lots of berries: blueberries, blackberries (loganberries, boysenberries, marionberries), strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, aronia berries

    • Consume white nectarines, blue, black and red plums, bing cherries when ripe

    • Consume red (red flame), purple and black grapes, golden raisins & currants

    • Consume blood oranges, Cara Cara oranges, tangelos, red grapefruit, ripe lemons & limes

    • Include citrus zest (organic) in your cooking

  • Herbs:

    • Cook with savory herbs and spices often

    • Include herbal teas and herbal vinegars in your daily diet

    • Add fresh herbs to salads and garnish dishes with fresh herbs


Institute For Functional Medicine. Phytonutrient Spectrum Foods.

Kines, Kasia. The Epstein-Barr Virus Solution.

Robinson, J. (2014). Eating on the Wild Side. The Missing Link to Optimum Health. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.