July 24th, 2009
09:29 AM ET

What are phytonutrients and why do we need them?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From @richroll via Twitter.com:

“What are phytonutrients and why do we need them?”


Thanks Rich. You can think of phytonutrients as health boosters. Plants produce these substances to protect themselves from bacteria and viruses, but they help the human body as well. They are highly nutritious active compounds within plants which promote good health.

Phytonutrients come in many classes. That list is long, but the ones you’ve probably heard of are carotenoids, flavonoids and sulfides.

We probably know the most about carotenoids, according to the USDA, they basically give fruit and vegetables their red, orange and yellow color. These compounds are believed to protect against certain cancers, heart disease and even vision loss due to macular degeneration. Think of carrots, green leafy vegetables, oranges and sweet potatoes, to name a few. In fact just one orange contains more than 170 phytonutrients!

One rule of thumb I like to follow – try to eat at least seven different colored foods every day. The brighter the color, the better, this will help fuel your body with the essential nutrients your body needs.

Evidence that these compounds help our bodies is compelling. In just one study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, consuming just three servings of fruits and vegetables, was linked to a 22% decreased risk of stroke. But overall, phytonutrients are said to help slow down the aging process and may protect against a host of illnesses and diseases like some cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure and other chronic health conditions. In addition, they could work to enhance immunity and serve as antioxidants.

By the way Rich Roll is quite an inspiration himself, read his story here.

soundoff (3,551 Responses)
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    I have been able to grab an understanding of what phytonutrient is all about, i would want to get more information on the topic and i would want to get bulletins on science updates on my mail.

    August 1, 2009 at 03:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. angela

    Dr. Gupta,

    A couple of months ago, I received a twitter from you saying eat several colors of veggies and fruits.

    Several years ago, I'd decided to eat a variety of color of fruits and veggies, and had even decided to juice them as well. I found myself doing good for a while, but then gradually falling back into my bad habbits of only eating 1 or 2 a day. When I got the twitter from you, I was back on track and was so happy to read that from you. Your twitter got me to thinking, though..."Why color?" It bothered me.

    So I started a blog: mamaknowsbest.today.com. I haven't blogged much yet. What I plan on doing with the blog is to explain to my readers why they need to eat color. Then I began thinking...if possible can you tell me why you said to eat at least 5 varieites of color a day. Tell me why does color matter?

    I'm going to do research on my own and put my findings on my blog, but it will be good to hear it from you too.

    I really thank you for that tweet; it has really changed my eating habbits again. I'm focused again.

    August 5, 2009 at 13:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. eddie c. wills

    av read this peace of info and yes its very true that our bodies need vitamins from fruits.

    August 9, 2009 at 15:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Larry luv

    You say phytonutrients is what gives frutis and vegetables their color and is healthy for our bodies to help fight disease..
    My question and concern is the mass amount of pesticides that are on our food crops, that we consume daily.
    Are we not prone to danger from the chemicals in our fruit and vegetable supply?
    Organic foods are very expensive and of limited supply for many folks.
    I am concerned the more fruits and veggies we eat,the more we consume and absorb in our body the harsh dangerous pesticides.
    Surely cleaning foods cant rid all of these chemicals.
    Please inform

    August 9, 2009 at 23:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Ann

    Larry Luv-Regular prepackaged foods have just as many pesticides as do Fresh fruits/veggies. They have more toxic chemicals added on top of that, rather as fruits and veggies have none added.

    August 13, 2009 at 19:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Thys

    What are the side efects of the plants they use-like Aloe

    March 18, 2013 at 05:04 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.