Food's Secret Healing Power

Are you concerned about colon cancer? Perhaps you're hoping to avoid breast cancer? Maybe you're afraid of some of the most deadly diseases afflicting modern society such as cancer of the stomach, lungs, rectum, and esophagus? Or do your concerns fall along other lines, with ailments ranging from high blood pressure to heart disease or from allergies to asthma to arthritis?

Then, consider this: If you eat right there is a much higher probability that you'll never suffer from any of these diseases. Why is that?

It's because of a group of substances found in foods called phytochemicals. These naturally occurring chemicals don't fall within the normal definition of a nutrient — they aren't minerals or vitamins. Yet researchers say phytochemicals offer protection from several of the most deadly disease and that they provide the hope of finding cures for many others.

Phytochemicals' disease-prevention and curative capabilities have made them the stars of the nutrition field. That's why the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and major universities across the country are spending millions of dollars to find out more about food's secret healing power.

The fact that food can affect health isn't a recent finding. For decades, studies of large cultural populations have shown a link between diet and health. For instance, cultures with high levels of dietary fiber exhibit lower levels of colon and prostate cancer. In cultures where the diet includes high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids (from fish) the levels of heart disease are drastically reduced. In a recent study in Japan, researchers found that people who consume green tea on a regular basis have such health benefits as far lower rates of stomach cancer. In all, more than 150 studies around the world have found that people who eat the most fruits and vegetables are half as likely to have cancer as those people who eat the least (such as the people in industrialized, western societies).

These epidemiological studies raise the question: exactly what is it in the food that we eat that prevents or cures disease? To find the answer, nutritional research is focusing on compounds - phytochemicals that exist in foods and may hold the key to eliminating some of the major illnesses afflicting modem society.

Phytochemicals exist by the hundreds and thousands. One, called d-limonene, is found in orange peels and may prevent breast cancer. Another one, called protease inhibitors. is found in soybeans and may stop the production of enzymes in cancer cells. Indoles, allyl sulfides, allium compounds, dithiolthiones,—the list of these new compounds goes on and on. There are at least 500 known carotenoids, of which beta carotene is the most famous, but not necessarily the most effective in terms of its cancer-preventing qualities. There are flavonoids that enhance the body's detoxification system.

The list Phytochemicals includes entire classifications of nutrients that scientists now are starting to study understand. Consider that a tomato alone contains more than 10,000 different phytochemicals

In much of the research, scientists are trying to isolate particular phytochemicals for use as drugs to treat human ailments. Recently, the National Cancer Institute isolated a broccoli extract (sulforaphane) that they have shown prevents breast cancer in laboratory animals.

Many scientists think, however, that trying to extract particular ingredients is not the answer. They believe this will destroy the delicate balance of phytochemicals that exist in any plant. When taking a single extract, you may have to take several other plant extracts in the right proportions to maintain the effectiveness of the plant as a disease fighter.

The Phytochemical Pharmacy


Apples — boron. Scientists have linked this mineral with the prevention of osteoporosis. All fruits contain caffeic acid, which helps the body make carcinogens water soluble (meaning they are easier to excrete) and farylilic acid, which appears to offer protection against stomach cancer.

Cantaloupe, kiwi, mango, and papaya — vitamin C. Studies are pointing to vitamin C as a general tonic for our immune system because it stimulates the activity of white blood cells.

Bananas—potassium. A recent study found that a high-potassium diet may help regulate blood pressure.


Oranges and grapefruit — limonene. Found in most citrus fruits, scientists think this phytochemical increases the activity of enzymes that help eliminate carcinogens. Also, oranges and grapefruits contain other phytochemicals that may reduce inflammations that cause asthma, arthritis, and allergies.

Pineapple — bromelain. This enzyme may relieve some symptoms of heart disease and asthma. Also, pineapple is a good source of manganese, which, along with copper and zinc, plays a key role in building bones and preventing osteoporosis.


Broccoli — dithiolthiones. The leader of the foods that researchers are studying for their phytochemical content, broccoli contains dithiolthiones, a class of chemicals that speed up the production of enzymes that protect the cells' DNA from damage. Some day we may be using sulforaphane (a specific dithiolthinone) to prevent breast cancer.

Cabbage, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, rutabaga, and turnip greens — indoles and isothiocynates. All cruciferous vegetables contain indoles, a group of chemicals that may reduce the risk of breast cancer, and isothiocynates that help protect the cells' DNA.

Peppers — capsaicin. This substance is used to treat arthritis. Researchers believe that this entire class of phytochemicals may have the ability to prevent carcinogens from becoming active in the body.

Tomatoes — vitamin C and Iycopene. A nutrient in our diet, Iycopene has been linked to lower incidence of cervical cancer.

Carrots — high in beta carotene (pro-vitamin A) and vitamin B. Scientists believe beta carotene provides protection from many ailments ranging from cataracts to cancer. Carrots belong to the food group that lists parsnips, coriander, parsley, and celery as members. Researchers are pointing to substances in these foods that may stop or prevent the activation of carcinogens.

Asparagus — good source of fiber, vitamin C, and calcium. Currently, scientists are looking at a phytochemical in asparagus that may stop cervical cancer before it has a chance to grow and spread.

Garlic, onion, leeks, and chives — allyl sulfides. It's this substance that gives these pungent vegetables their smell. Researchers think these phytochemicals increase the production of an enzyme that removes carcinogens from the body. Also, population studies in China found a link between a diet of garlic and a lower risk of stomach cancer.


Soybeans—genistein. Although researchers are finding a whole collection of compounds in soybeans that show promise, genistein, in particular, is promising. It may be able to block the growth of tumors.

Grains—photic acid. Researchers are focusing on this phytochemical in grains because it may be able to neutralize some cancer-causing free radicals.

As a University of Minnesota researcher recently pointed out, we've yet to discover many of the phytochemicals. Therefore, a more direct approach is to simply eat more fruits, grains, and vegetables. SO, along with trying to isolate individual phytochemicals, many research centers are pursuing concentrated food sources of phytochemicals. Recently, National Cancer Institute scientists developed a vegetable cocktail containing carrot, celery, and tomato juices with pepper, basil, paprika, garlic, and rosemary added as spices or as natural antioxidants.

The National Cancer Institute hopes to develop a way for Americans to reap the benefits of a diet high in fruits and vegetables. For several years, the Institute's goal has been to get us to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Despite the Institute's public relations campaign, the average American still eats 1 1/9 servings of vegetables and less than a 1/2 serving of fruit on any given day. The result is that we're missing out on one of the best avenues toward better health: the fresh fruits and vegetables found in grocery stores across North America.

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