Debra DeMuth

Living Longer, Healthier and Better

Whoever thought Kale would be cool? Why has this mysterious green leaf taken over our Caesar salads, smoothies and become a “go to” for chips instead of potatoes? It probably didn’t become popular because of its great taste! Some call kale a “superfood” because it is packed with nutrients called phytonutrients, or plant-based nutrients. So what are phytonutrients and what do they do?

Phytonutrients not only support the growth and vitality of the plant but also have numerous health benefits or, as scientists call it, health promoting properties in humans. These unique molecules are not essential nutrients for life as are carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals, but instead have powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune supporting properties which appear to help reduce the risk of certain diseases and to promote healthy longevity.

Foods rich in phytonutrient come from the earth and include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, tea and numerous spices. There are many thousands of naturally occurring phytonutrients in our foods but they have unfamiliar names that are hard to pronounce such as quercetin (onions), polyphenols (berries), flavonoids (citrus fruits), glucosinolates (cabbage), phytoestrogens (soy), lutein and zeaxanthin (green leafy vegetables) .…. to name just a few.

So why are we hearing so much about phytonutrients and less about vitamins and minerals? Most people are unaware that nutrition science is a relatively new field with the first vitamin being discovered only about 100 years ago. Our knowledge and understanding of phytonutrients has come much later in the study of nutrition and only after many scientists and public health officials made their share of mistakes. Nutrition science became a victim of the “heroes” and “villains” approach to health as scientists started studying the impact of individual nutrients on curing or preventing particular diseases, similar to how drugs are studied.

Debra DeMuth
Debra DeMuth
Debra DeMuth, PhD
Director, US Medical Affairs Nutritionals GI

Scientists tried to explain too much too fast and in some cases didn’t appreciate the complexities of human health and disease. For instance, in many trials similar to those done for other drugs to determine their effects, nutrients like vitamin E and beta-carotene were given to smokers or asbestos workers assuming decades of exposure to these toxins could be reversed. These trials failed miserably, but scientists continued to fight for “hero” status for fiber, vitamin E, beta-carotene and selenium while at the same time “villainizing” saturated fat, cholesterol, salt and sugar. Fortified and processed foods, rich in some of these “hero” nutrients, became mainstays of the diet and the avoidance of the “villainous” fats, sodium and carbohydrates resulted in even less healthy dietary intakes. Globally, diet related diseases were on the rise even though the average lifespan was increasing. Dietary recommendations from qualified health professionals and experts often times failed to recognize the complex interactions of the individual components of the diet on health. Bottom line, while we are living longer, we are not necessarily living longer healthier and better. The quality of the life we live remains the challenge.

At the request of several international scientific organizations, scientists took a step back and looked at overall dietary patterns and whole foods instead of individual nutrients and began to recognize the benefits of plant based diets. Dietary patterns with heavy fresh fruit and vegetable intakes were associated with reduced chronic age-associated diseases and healthier lives. Individual categories of phytonutrient rich foods such as berries, dark leafy greens, legumes, citrus fruits, melons and spices emerged as important for immune health, eye health, bone health, heart health and brain health.

While we don’t know precisely how all of these phytonutrients work in the body yet, we do know a lot about their activities in individual cells and body organs. We also know we can’t provide all of the benefits of phytonutrients in a pill or capsule. We do know that individuals with high consumption of a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and spices hold a key to healthy longevity and wellness.

Let’s not make the same mistakes again and rush to judgement too quickly on the complexities of science and human health and wrongly create more “heroes” and “villains”. The well-established benefits of phytonutrient-rich, plant-based diets on healthy longevity and wellbeing require widespread availability of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and spices in the global dietary landscape. As our knowledge of the association between healthy longevity and fruit and vegetable based diets grows, so will our appreciation for the abundant crops that bear these phytonutrient rich foods and the scientific work to understand them.

For more information visit: Linus Pauling Institute

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Charlene Ng
April 07, 2018 - 02:32 AM

Very nice blog. I enjoy reading the insightful perspectives.

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April 06, 2018 - 06:25 AM

Great perspective on how nutrient and phytonutrient research and consumer's perceptions are gradually changing and how healthy whole foods can play a key role in that.

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Klaus Kötting
April 05, 2018 - 03:23 PM

Hi Debra,
great blog about health and nutrition. It is good to see that Consumer Health and Crop Science have touchpoints for the benefit of human's quality of life. Let's further deepen the exchange and collaboration.
With best wishes

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