The difference between phytonutrients vs. antioxidants explained, as well as their benefits and what foods contain them.
What Are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are naturally occurring substances that may prevent or treat cell damage.
The cell damage is usually a result of too many free radicals that occur due to natural processes like exercising or digesting food. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that cause oxidative stress, which can result in cell damage.
Cell damage and oxidative stress are linked to cancer, heart disease, and various other chronic conditions so it is best to keep oxidative stress low.
Antioxidants are found in high amounts in fruits and vegetables but can be found in almost all plant foods. There are also man-made antioxidants, but these supplements are not yet proven to be beneficial and may even be harmful.
Always choose a food-first approach when possible.
Common types of antioxidants include:
- Carotenoids – including beta-carotene
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E1
What Are Phytonutrients?
Phytonutrients are compounds produced by plants that have additional healing benefits and are responsible for some of the color, aroma, and taste of plant foods.
Phyto = pertaining to plants
Nutrients = source of nourishment
Phytonutrients = plant source of nourishment
They have high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which are the main reasons people should color their plates with these phytonutrient-rich foods.
Phytonutrients may also be called antioxidants, flavonoids, phytochemicals, flavones, isoflavones, carotenoids, and polyphenols.
Many types of phytonutrients exist but some of the key ones include:
Phytonutrients are not listed on the nutrition facts of foods, but they exist in most all plant foods, especially the ones with a richness of color.
What Are the Benefits of Phytonutrients and Antioxidants?
Studies on the benefits of phytonutrients and antioxidants generally show positive results in the short term and unclear effects in the long term since there are a lot of variables in human nutrition studies.
Nutrition research has shown that high intakes of plant foods are correlated with lower risks of chronic diseases and mortality.
Antioxidants and phytonutrients are often cited as the key reasons for these beneficial effects. Antioxidants for their ability to reduce oxidative stress, and phytonutrients for their anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic properties.
More in-depth research is needed for a better understanding of the effects of phytonutrients and antioxidants to prevent or treat diseases in the long term.
Proposed Benefits of Phytonutrients and Antioxidants
Proposed benefits and food lists for these common phytonutrients are as follows:
- Blood vessel health
You can find anthocyanidins in red, purple, and blue fruits and some vegetables:
- Red onions
- Red radishes
- Bone health
- Immune system
- Skin health
You can find beta-carotene in dark, leafy green and orange vegetables:
- Sweet potato
- Winter squash
- Bone health
- Breast cancer
- Joint inflammation
- Lower cholesterol
You can find isoflavones mainly in soybeans: edamame, soymilk, tempeh, textured soy protein, tofu, etc.
- Eye health
- Heart health
You can find lutein in the following foods:
- Brussels sprouts
- Collard greens
- Heart health
- Prostate cancer
You can find lycopene in pink and red foods:
- Pink grapefruit
- Red peppers
- Heart health
- Lung health
You can find resveratrol in grapes and peanuts.2
Antioxidants can be phytonutrients, but not all phytonutrients are antioxidants, yet most phytonutrients have antioxidant properties… uh say that again?
It may sound confusing, but there are very few and unimportant differences between phytonutrients vs. antioxidants.
Stick to eating your fruits and vegetables and you’ll be sure to get plenty of both and reap their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticarcinogenic properties!
Sources of Information
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Rachel Badtke, RDN, CPT is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). She specializes in holistic wellness and whole food plant-focused nutrition. Rachel holds a Bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and an ACE-approved certificate of completion in Advanced Sports Nutrition.