Food micronutrients explained — Antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and phytochemicals

It is important to understand these scientific terms when making food choices.

Photo credit: Sarah Rautio.
Photo credit: Sarah Rautio.

Science often uses complex terms to describe beneficial food ingredients. Here are some simplified definitions of some of those terms. Macronutrients are molecules we need in large quantities, such as carbohydrates, and micronutrients are molecules we need in small quantities. Most micronutrients are “essential”, which means our body cannot manufacture them on its own and has to obtain them from food. Some micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, are necessary for human health; while others, like antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and phytochemicals, may not be necessary but are still very beneficial.

What are antioxidants?

"Antioxidant" is a general term for any molecule, made by the body or ingested in food, which prevents oxidative chemical reactions. These reactions produce molecules called “free radicals,” which are damaging to the body and may lead to cancer.  

Many different types of micronutrients (e.g., vitamins, phytonutrients, etc.) are classified as antioxidants because they share this ability. Antioxidants are primarily found in fruits and vegetables and are often more concentrated in darker varieties (e.g. blueberries). 

Research has confirmed certain antioxidants (e.g. Vitamins A and C) prevent oxidative reactions but the mechanisms and benefits of other antioxidants, such as polyphenols, are not entirely known.

What are anti-inflammatories?

"Anti-inflammatory" is a general term for any molecule, either manmade (e.g., acetaminophen) or naturally-occurring, that reduces inflammation. Many different types of micronutrients (e.g., vitamins, phytonutrients, etc.) are classified as anti-inflammatories.

Inflammation occurs naturally and safely following injury or stress, but “chronic” inflammation over longer time periods is not healthy. Anti-inflammatory medications are used to deal with the safer short-term inflammation; micronutrients obtained from food may assist in the reduction of long-term chronic inflammation.

Colorful fruits and vegetables, omega and olive oils, nuts, seeds and some spices contain anti-inflammatory molecules. Many anti-inflammatories also have antioxidant properties. Exercise and relaxation may help to reduce inflammation in the body, too. 

What are phytochemicals?

Phytochemicals are chemicals produced by plants that could benefit human health. They include indoles, retinoids, tocopherols, polyphenols, glucosinolates, carotenoids and phytosterols (many described below). Polyphenols are naturally used by plants to help them function and stay healthy, but polyphenol function in humans is not completely understood since they are only ingested and not manufactured by humans. Initial findings, however, suggest potential human health benefits.

Polyphenols – These include both phytochemicals and manmade molecules such as flavonoids, ellagitannins, lignans, resveratrol, quercetin, and isoflavone. They have antioxidant properties in lab studies but their role in humans is not completely understood. Polyphenols can be present in either mixtures (different forms) in the same food or as one type that is specific to a certain food. They occur in grape skin, wine, olive pulp, oranges, tea, soy, and chocolate.

Glucosinolates/isothiocyanates – These are phytochemicals found in pungent-like plants such as those in the cruciferous family (e.g. broccoli, Brussel sprouts). They are used by plants and insects to defend against pests and disease. They are currently being investigated as potential agents for combating cancer in humans.

Carotenoids – These are phytochemicals that produce pigment (color) in plants – alpha and beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin, anthocyanins and many more. Some of them, like the zeaxanthin and lutein found in spinach, collards and carrots; and the alpha-carotene found in carrots, may be very beneficial to eye health. Others, like the anthocyanidin in red berries, may benefit heart health, although more research on its effectiveness in patients is needed. Some carotenoids have multiple benefits - carrot alpha-carotene is also an antioxidant.

Phytosterols – These are phytochemicals with structure and function similar to human cholesterol. They are found in vegetables such as legumes (beans, peas). They are believed to slow down absorption of cholesterol for better human health.

Antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and phytochemicals have not been shown to be necessary for basic human function; however, they likely have very significant benefits towards overall human health and longevity due to their disease-preventing properties. They are typically found in the same foods that essential micronutrients are in, so adding an array of plant-based foods into your diet is the simplest and easiest way to increase the amount of these “extra” micronutrients in your body. Supplements should be used more carefully following consultation with a doctor.

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