What are phytonutrients?

By 20. October 2015Blog, Nutrition, Taste

Hot on the heels of “Where did all the bitterness go?” here is a small explanation of what phytonutrients actually are.

Quite simply phytonutrients are chemicals produced by plants (phyto- is derived from the Greek word for plants), for example:

1)      carotenes such as beta carotene/lycopene, responsible for the colour of carrots and tomatoes.

2)      anthocyanins that give purple cabbage, blueberries and blackcurrants their colour

3)      Glucoraphanin, a compound produced by plants such as broccoli that protects the plant from pests and diseases.

So why are we talking about them? In the blog yesterday we reported on how varieties of plants are being produced that are less bitter than their predecessors. The argument is that the bittering compounds that are being removed provide health benefits and therefore we are breeding the goodness out of them.

The three examples given above are of phytochemicals that some breeders are actually trying to increase in our food, and only glucoraphanin is bitter. Examples of food that are having their bitterness bred out of them are: aubergines (less bittering phenols), onions (less flavanol quercetin), tomatoes (less tomatine).

The list goes on, but the general idea seems to be that a little bit of bitterness is good for us (and some people argue they can add complexity to our food) and so we should try to keep it in our foods. The amounts found in some newer cultivars of our crops is a pale comparison to those found in some heirloom varieties.

The take home message, a bit of bitterness shouldn’t be a bitter pill to swallow.

There are no external links as such for this blog. But if you want to read up on phytochemicals there is a wealth of information out there. I recommend starting with the BBC podcast from yesterday’s blog.