Plants contain a wide range of biologically active compounds, some of which are known as phytochemicals. There may be as many as 100000 different compounds, which determine particular properties in plants, and in the fruits and vegetables they produce, such as flavor and color. Phytochemicals are classified according to their chemical structure and functional characteristics, and include salicylates, phytosterols, saponins, glucosinolates, polyphenols, protease inhibitors, monoterpenes, phytoestrogens, sulphides, terpenes, and lectins.
It is widely believed that the health benefits of diets high in fruits and vegetables are likely to be due partly to the presence of phytochemicals. For instance, several act as antioxidants, preventing oxidative damage to cells, proteins, and DNA. It is likely that other bioactive phytochemicals have yet to be identified, and those that are known may have additional properties in the body that are not yet understood. But it is thought that nutrients, phytochemicals, and other, as yet unknown, bioactive components act together to influence physiological responses.
Although many phytochemicals are bioactive, they are not essential in the diet and there is no daily requirement, so they are not classed as nutrients. Humans have developed tastes for some phytochemicals, such as the hot flavors of mustard oil, bitter alkaloids, and irritating capsaicins. There is genetically inherited variation in sensitivity to some tastes, for example, the bitter taste of isothiocynates in cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage.
Reference: Reports from American Institute for Cancer Research
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