Keeping the doctor away

Many phytochemicals have a health benefit for humans

Of the huge number of chemicals plants produce that are beneficial to their own survival, many are also useful to humans. Phytochemicals (‘phyto’ means plant in Greek) are natural plant compounds, often secondary metabolites that are not vital to the plant’s primary growth and development. Some have health benefits for us. Simply by eating fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereals and vegetable oils, we absorb a lot of phytochemicals, but they are also added to certain products with the aim of improving their nutritional value.

Plant stanols and sterols are phytochemicals added to spreads and yoghurts as supplements. Eating around 2–3 g of these a day can help stop cholesterol being absorbed into the blood, thus lowering cholesterol levels and reducing heart disease risk in people with high cholesterol. The health benefits of phytochemical antioxidants such as polyphenols (which perform a range of roles in plants) and carotenoids (plant pigments) are less clear, despite widespread claims about their ability to combat disease.

Lead image:

Glenn Marsh/Flickr CC BY NC


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Plants’ in May 2016.

Health, infection and disease
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development