Phytonutrients, Flavonoids and Carotenoids: What are the Differences?

Besides nutrients, plant-based foods (legumes, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and teas as well as herbs and spices) have another “crop” of naturally occurring compounds with potential health benefits. Collectively they’re called phytonutrients, meaning plant chemicals. “Phyto” means plant. Think fight for “phytos,” since they appear to promote health by sparking body processes that fight, or slow, the development of some diseases. 

Why have phytonutrients captured our attention? Because of their potential for health promotion! Today consumers are more interested in positive nutrition and self-care: adding (not avoiding) foods that may enhance fitness, boost immunity, slow aging, and prevent or slow the chance for chronic disease. Sound like you? Research on phytonutrients is the new frontier in nutrition, as exciting today as vitamin discoveries were a hundred years ago! 

phytonutrients flavonoids carotenoids

Phytonutrients: What Role in Health?

As public interest in phytonutrients soars, science is exploring their functional benefits. Phytonutrients are bioactive compounds in food that promote your health by helping to slow the aging process or reducing the risk for many diseases. Since the early 1980s, research has intensified in investigat- ing how phytonutrients protect against some cancers, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cataracts, osteoporosis, urinary tract infections, and other chronic health conditions. 

These are among the ways that phytonutrients might work: serve as antioxidants, enhance immunity, change estrogen metabolism, enhance communication among body cells, cause cancer cells to die, detoxify carcinogens, and repair damage to DNA that’s caused by smoking and other toxins. Yet the benefits and actions of phytonutrients are still uncertain. Do they work independently, together, with nutrients and fiber, or do their actions add up? 

“Phytos”: In a Class of Their Own

Neither vitamins nor minerals, phytonutrients are substances that plants produce naturally to protect them- selves against viruses, bacteria, and fungi, as well as insects, drought, and even the sun. Beyond that, they provide the color, aroma, and flavor that give food so much sensual appeal. Of the thousands of phytonutri- ents, more than two thousand are plant pigments that put a rainbow of colors on your plate! See “Paint Your Plate with Color!” in chapter 13. 

Like nutrients, phytonutrients are grouped accord- ing to their biochemical characteristics and probable protective functions. Only a few hundred have yet been studied. What we know today is merely the “appetizer.” 

Research has revealed a few things. Most fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients. Different plant- based foods supply different kinds and amounts; some have a remarkable variety. An orange, for example, has more than 170 different phytonutrients! In any fruit or vegetable, these substances appear to work together with nutrients and fiber for your good health.

For phytonutrients, food databases are limited to just a few hundred foods, with only a few key carotenoids and phytoestrogens. A database for flavonoids is being developed. No Dietary Reference Intakes exist for them yet. Here’s a quick look at several phytonutrient categories: 


Carotenoids (beta carotene, lutein, lycopene, zeaxanthin), limonoids and saponins are subgroups of terpenes, a large class of phytonutrients that work as potent antioxidants. The hundreds of carotenoids, often grouped by color, may decrease the risk of heart disease, stroke, blindness, and some cancers—and may help slow the aging process, improve respiratory function, and reduce problems associated with diabetes. 

Beta carotene 
  • As an antioxidant, neutralize free radicals that may cause cell damage  
  • May help slow the aging process  
  • May reduce the risk of some cancers 
  • May improve lung function  
  • May reduce problems related to type 2 diabetes
  • Yellow-orange fruits and vegetables such as apricots, cantaloupes, papayas, carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, winter squash
  • Green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, kale
  • Contribute to maintaining healthy vision
  • May reduce the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration
  • May reduce the risk of some cancers
  • Green vegetables such as kale, spinach, collard greens, Swiss chard, Romaine lettuce, broccoli, brussels sprouts, Kiwifruit, Egg yolks  
  • Reduce risk of prostate cancer 
  • May reduce risk for heart disease
  • Most red fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, tomato products, pink grapefruit, guava, watermelon (The red pigment in red peppers is from keto carotenoids, not lycopene.)
  • Contribute to maintaining healthy vision
  • May help prevent macular degeneration 
  • Corn, spinach, winter squash, green vegetables, citrus fruits. (Eggs have a small amount of zeaxanthin, too.) 


This family group, which includes polyphenols (including flavonoids), offers protection from oxidative damage. Sometimes called bioflavonoids, more than eight hundred flavonoids work as antioxidants with many potentially protective health benefits; for example, some appear to promote cardiovascular health by helping to make blood cells less “sticky.” Isoflavones, anthocyanins, and catechins are sub-groups of flavonoids; some isoflavones are phytoestrogens—weak, nonsteroid estrogens. Lignans, other phenolic substances, are also phytoestrogens.

Anthocyanins (cyanidin, delphinidin, malvidin) 
  • As an antioxidant, neutralize free radicals
  • May help reduce cancer risk 
  • May help prevent urinary tract infections
  • Blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, cherries, strawberries, kiwifruit, plums, red grapes, red cabbage, egg plant (skin)
Catechins (EGCG)
  • As an antioxidant, neutralize free radicals
  • May help reduce risk for cancers of the stomach, skin, and esophagus 
  • May boost brain function (Stem Cell Reports)
  • Tea (black, oolong or green), wine
  • French maritime pine bark extract rich in polyphenols and procyanidins
  • Pycnogenol is the US registered trademark name for a product derived from the French maritime pine bark of a tree known as Pinus pinaster.
  • The active ingredients in pycnogenol can also be extracted from other sources, including peanut skin, grape seed, and witch hazel bark.
Flavanones (hesperetin, naringenin)
  • May help protect against heart disease 
  • Citrus fruit
Isoflavones (daidzein, genestein, glycitein) 
  • May reduce menopause symptoms such as hot flashes
  • May offer protection from breast and prostate cancers 
  • May protect bone health after menopause 
  • Soybeans, soy-based foods 
  • Works as a potent antioxidant 
  • May reduce the growth and spread of cancer cells
  • Onions, Wine, Tea, many vegetables 
  • As an antioxidant, may help reduce the risk of heart disease 
  • Support normal cardiovascular health
  • May help reduce the risk of cancer, blood clots, stroke
  • May boost brain function (Stem Cell Reports)
  • Red grapes, red grape juice, red wine
  • Peanuts


Sometimes referred to as “plant cholesterol” because of their structural similarity, phytos- terols are fatlike substances in plants. Phytosterols offer protection from heart disease by helping to decrease the absorption of dietary cholesterol from animal-based foods. 

Thiols (organosulfuric compounds)

Thiols are plant substances that contain sulfur naturally. Their food sources are easy to identify because of their pungent aroma. Some of these compounds you might hear about include glucosinolates, indoles, dithiolthiones, and isothiocyanates in cruciferous vegetables, and allyl sulfides in foods such as garlic and onions. 

Organic Acids and Polysaccharides

These substances include organic acids such as oxalic acid, phytic acid, and tannins, which bind with iron and make it less available to your body. Yet they may have benefits, too; see the following chart. Caffeic and ferulic acids fit in this phytonutrient family, too. Oligosaccharides, made of many simple sugars, are yet another category of phytonutrients that work as prebiotics. 

Bottom line

Already there’s overwhelming evidence for the health benefits of plant-based foods: fruits; vegetables; legumes (including soy); nuts; seeds; and grains, especially whole grains. Research shows that you lower the odds for some cancers, heart disease, and other health problems by eating more fruits, vegetables, and grains. 

Count on a variety of foods, not dietary supplements, to reap the benefits of the many phytonutrients from all kinds of plant-based foods. Supplements with just one or a few phytonutrients haven’t been shown to be either effective or safe.

Adapted from:
  • International Food Information Council
  • American Dietetic Association 



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