Many of us are careful readers of the Nutrition Facts label on the back of food packaging, and some even read the ingredient list. There is useful information to be found on both, but there is also a lot that’s missing or concealed.
In an attempt to make their products appear healthier, food manufacturers jump through hoops to hide undesirable ingredients from us, while still following the letter of the law. And, unfortunately, the FDA has bent to industry pressures to make these “loopholes” possible.
Phytonutrients and antioxidants, which are vitally important to our health are never listed on nutrition labels or ingredient lists. There are many thousands of them, and many more remain to be discovered.
What are phytonutrients (aka phytochemicals)? Phytonutrients are compounds that protect plants from attack. When animals are attacked, they run away or fight. Plants can't do that, so they have developed a diverse arsenal of substances to keep them healthy and protect them from threats (such as hungry animals, diseases, too much sun, etc.) Some phytochemicals act as antioxidants, but many have other effects on the body.
There are many phytonutrients we don't even know about yet, and the exact mode of action of many of those we do know about remains unclear. Additionally, there are thousands of important interactions between these compounds that we don't yet understand. The good news is that, when we ingest plants, these same phytonutrients also benefit our health and help protect us from disease and aging. Read more about phytonutrients here.
How do phytochemicals differ from antioxidants? Antioxidants are a subgroup of phytochemicals. These compounds can stop damage to our cells caused by free radicals, which are produced in our bodies all the time, as a result of normal metabolism. Antioxidants occur naturally in food, especially plant foods. Plant foods have, on average, 64 times more antioxidant power than animal foods.
What is the best way to know you are eating foods with lots of phytonutrients and few downsides? Do we need to consult a table, to know how much and what we should eat? Do we need to eat “superfoods”? No. The easiest way to ensure that you are getting enough of these important substances, is to strive to "eat the rainbow". Eat fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains, and other plant foods of different colors (including black and white), which contain different antioxidants and other phytonutrients. Don't forget herbs and spices, which are especially high in phytonutrients.
Remove animal-based foods, such as meat, chicken, fish, dairy, and cheese from your diet. Plant foods have, on average, 64 times more antioxidant power than animal foods. They also come without a lot of negatives, such as saturated fat, cholesterol, hormones, persistent organic pollutants, and more. Animal-based foods are not necessary for health.
Remove processed foods from your diet, and if you do eat processed foods, choose those that are as unprocessed as possible (i.e. oatmeal, canned beans, etc.) When buying packaged foods, use the Environmental Working Group's Healthy Living App to help you make the best choices.
Don't believe that you can safely get these phytonutrients and antioxidants from a supplement. When supplements were tested, some studies showed that those patients taking antioxidant supplements fared worse, or even died sooner than those getting their antioxidants from plants!
Mother Nature knows exactly what to do with plant foods. The body knows precisely how much to absorb of which compounds, when to stop, and how they all work together. So keep it simple! Eat a whole foods, plant-based diet and your body will do the rest*. Side effects include vastly improved health, fewer pains, and an amazing increase in energy!
* If you are completely plant-based, you should take a vitamin B12 (only) supplement. This vitamin is produced in the colon of humans and many animals by bacteria, but it cannot be absorbed there. Many animals eat their own feces, and for those that don't, fecal contamination of water is the likely source of B12. Since most of us prefer not to get their vitamin B12 this way, a supplement is a better choice! Depending on your sun exposure, you may also need a vitamin D supplement, but skip multivitamin supplements.