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Libraries of information exist about vitamins, but phytonutrients are newcomers to the health-food table. There is currently a sort of phyto information war going on. On the one side, pill- makers are trying to package and promote phytonutrient supplements as the new magic cure-all. On the other side, researchers are trying to determine scientifically just what phytochemicals are in which foods and what good things they do for you. Here is information you need to know to separate the hype from the useful information:
Eat the real thing. Get your phytos from foods, not just from pills. Even reputable phyto supplements makers offer this grandmotherly advice. Like other nutrients, phytos operate under the biochemical principle of synergy (1+1=3). For example, flavonoids and carotenoids have more health-promoting properties when they are eaten together in the same food rather than when they are taken separately in a supplement. Each one of the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of yet-undiscovered phytos helps each other biochemically in the food - and presumably also in the body. Eating a whole tomato is better than popping a pill that contains a chemical isolated from a tomato. By eating a few florets of broccoli you're not only getting the beta carotene you could get in a pill, but you're probably also getting the health benefits of hundreds or thousands of other phytos that don't even have names yet. And, of course, you're getting vitamin C, fiber, and calcium, too.
Eat variety. Because each class of phytos affects cellular well-being in different ways, the best way to take full advantage of the best medicine nature has to offer is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. One phyto may bind a carcinogen to keep it from latching onto a cell; another may whisk carcinogens out of the cells; still another may handcuff free radicals before they are allowed to roam free in the body; still others stimulate the body's own enzymes to break up potential cancer-causing chemicals. Certainly, a multi-vegetable salad is more heart-healthy and cancer-protective than an apple. (Better still, eat the salad for lunch and have the apple for dessert.)
Specific phytos fight specific cancers. For example, the phytos in cruciferous vegetables (e.g., broccoli and cauliflower) are most protective against colon cancer; the phytos in garlic are most protective against stomach cancer; those in tomatoes fight against prostate cancer; and those in cruciferous and dark, green, leafy vegetables reduce the risk of breast cancer. For optimal health, eat some of all of these foods regularly.
Food preparation affects the phytos. Usually, raw vegetables have more nutrients than cooked ones, but sometimes this is not true with phytonutrients. Cooking broccoli, for example, releases the enzyme, indole, that fight cancer. Crushing or chopping garlic releases the enzyme, allicinase, to produce the active phytonutrient, allicin.