Significance of Plant-Based Functional Foods and Phytochemicals

Nearly 82% of the earth is covered with plants, of which 80% of them are used for food and medicinal purposes. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, only 12 plant and 5 animal species provide 75% of the world’s food. A plant-based diet includes cereals, pulses, legumes, fruits and vegetables which are rich in nutrients like carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, fibres, and other phytonutrients. Antioxidant chemicals including vitamin C, selenium, and vitamin E are abundant in plant diets. These substances help the body reduce oxidative stress, which lowers disease risk and promotes healthy ageing.

The concept of the therapeutic use of plants is not new. 2500 years ago, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, accepted the idea “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” However, with the development of modern medication therapy in the 19th century, this ‘food as medicine’ attitude faded into oblivion. The importance of nutrition in illness prevention and health promotion was once again highlighted in the 1900s. During the first half of the twentieth century, scientists concentrated their efforts on identifying critical elements, notably vitamins, and their involvement in preventing different dietary deficiency disorders.

The key to Okinawa’s longevity is their traditional diet, which consists mostly of plant-based foods that are high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Many chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, are reduced by eating a plant-based diet. Plant-based diet followers are more likely to have better insulin sensitivity and lower cholesterol levels.

A number of factors, including transitional health, urbanisation and its effects, changing demography with an ageing population, food security, the loss of traditional food culture, and awareness of personal health deterioration caused by busy lifestyles, poor convenience food choices, and a competitive food market, have converged and pushed for the development of functional foods. Insufficient exercise, greater self-medication, increased levels of information from health authorities, nutrition media, the relationship between diet and health, and scientific breakthroughs in nutrition research are all elements that have had an impact.

Consumers are increasingly seeking functional meals in order to avoid lifestyle problems. People have employed herbal medicines made out of medicinal plants to heal ailments since the dawn of time. Researchers are now interested in proving such findings through demonstrated technology implementations. All plant-based food components, such as oat-based meals, cereal-based milk products, herbal-based ghee, and soy-based milk products, are added to foods for additional value. These foods are GRAS because they have been used for a long time.

As land is destroyed to provide room for animals, the demand for animal products is a major source of deforestation. Approximately 30% of the world’s land area is dedicated to cattle production. Farm animals contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, which are linked to global warming.

Significance of Plant-Based Functional Foods and Phytochemicals

Functional Foods

Functional foods have biologically active components that have been linked to physiological health benefits in the prevention and management of chronic illnesses. The immune system’s ability to prevent and control pathogenic viral infections is also enhanced by functional meals.

According to National Academy of Sciences’ Food and Nutrition Board, “ functional foods are modified foods which provide potential health benefit.”

Functional foods, when combined with a healthy lifestyle, can help to improve health and well-being. Consumers must be informed about health advantages in order to make informed decisions about the foods they eat and enjoy. Functional foods have a vast product range. They include fortified, enriched foods or enhanced foods. For example- the food products which are to be enriched with Vitamin D will be fortified with product naturally containing Vit D like milk, a major source of Vit D.

Functional Foods

For example –

  • Fishes like salmon, trout, sardines etc. can be considered functional foods as they have low level of mercury and high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Unsalted nuts are a good source of magnesium which helps in managing blood pressure.
  • Whole grains like oatmeal are a good source of dietary fibres which helps lower cholesterol and blood glucose level.
  • Beans are rich in dietary fibre, folate, protein and potassium.
  • Berries are low in calorie and rich in pigments like anthocyanin which provide health benefits too.

List of some plant-based functional ingredients, sources, and benefits are as follows –

Functional IngredientsSourcesBenefits
Carotenoids & lycopeneTomatoes, bay leaves, carrots, oranges, beetroot, green leafy vegetablesAntioxidant, anti-carcinogenic, prevents LDL oxidation, decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease
CapsaicinRed and green peppersSuperoxide anion scavenger
Gallic acid, sulfides and thiols and  quercetinGarlic, onion, and broccoliDecreases blood pressure
Resveratrol, grape polyphenols, ginsenosides, and ascorbic acidGrapes, red wines, citrus fruitsDecreases blood pressure, prevents advanced malignance
Beta glucanOat bran, oatmeal, oat flour, barley, ryeMay reduce risk of coronary heart disease (CHD)
Caffeic acid, Ferulic acidCitrus fruits, some vegetables, whole grains, coffeePrevents anti-oxidation, maintains and improves eye health
MUFAsTree nuts, olive oil, canola oilMay reduce risk of CHD
PUFAs, Omega-3 fatty acids- ALAWalnuts, flaxseeds, flaxseed oilSupports maintenance of heart and eye health; also mental function
Anthocyanins-Cyanidin, Pelargonidin, Delphinidin, MalvidinBerries, cherries, red grapesMaintains healthy brain functioning
Flavonols – Quercetin,Kaempferol, Isorhamnetin, MyricetinOnions, apples, tea, BroccoliNeutralizes free radicals; bolster cellular antioxidant defences
Flavanols-Catechins,Epicatechins, EpigallocatechinTea, cocoa, chocolate, apples,grapesSupports maintenance of heart health
soflavones-Daidzein,GenisteinSoybeans and soy-based FoodsSupports maintenance of bone, immune health, brain functioning; and supports menopausal health
Free Stanols/SterolsCorn, soy, wheat, fortified foods and BeveragesMay reduce risk of CHD
LignansFlax seeds, carrot, seeds and nuts, lentils, broccoli, cauliflowerSupport maintenance of heart and immune health
Insoluble fiberWheat bran, corn bran, fruit skinsHelps in digestive health; reduce the risk of cance
Soluble fiberPsyllium seed husk, peas, beans, apples, citrus FruitsMay reduce risk of CHD and cancer
Functional Foods

Functional Foods


Phytochemicals are plant-based compounds that may have health advantages. They are not considered nutrients since they are not necessary for survival; nonetheless, frequent consumption of phytochemical-rich foods has been associated to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. They are physiologically active compounds like flavonoids, indoles, lignans, phytoestrogens, isothiocynates, sterols, carotenoids, phenolic acids, dietary fibres, saponins, etc.

The phytochemicals found in plants are lignin, β-glucan, β-carotene, lycopene, α-tocopherol, leutin, gallic acid etc.

Each phytochemical has its specific benefits which can be achieved whilst these chemicals are in pure form. For example –

  • Phytoestrogens are found in soy products
  • Phenolic acids are present in coffee beans.
  • Indoles are found in garlic
  • Carotenoids are found in tomatoes, carrots, oranges etc.

Polyphenols are phytochemicals naturally found in plants which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect on the body. For example – Curcumin has anti-inflammatory properties, Black pepper has ant-cancer effects, green tea has anti-inflammatory properties, lycopene helps fight cancer and prevents heart diseases.

List of foods and beverages that are full of nutritious polyphenols are –

  • Apples, artichokes, black currants, berries, olives, plums, red grapes, red onions, shallots, spinach.  
  • Almonds, chestnuts, flaxseed, hazelnuts, olive oil, rapeseed oil, soybean.
  • Apple juice (pure), beer, black tea, coffee, grapefruit juice (pure), pomegranate juice (pure), red wine.
  • Celery seed (dried), cloves, ginger (dried), peppermint (dried), rosemary (dried), sage, spearmint (dried), star anise, sweet basil (dried), thyme.

Phytochemicals are found in little levels in food, and despite the fact that thousands have been and are now being examined academically, their health advantages are mostly unknown. Their potential for toxicity, which may be significant if taken in large levels as supplements, is also unclear. Furthermore, phytochemicals frequently interact with one another and with micronutrients. As a result, supplementing with only a few phytochemicals or micronutrients may compromise the activities of other phytochemicals or micronutrients. Antioxidant vitamins are a group of compounds found in foods that have been related to health benefits. Many phytochemicals have antioxidant properties, but they also have additional activities such as imitating hormones, changing cholesterol absorption, reducing inflammatory reactions, and limiting the actions of specific enzymes.

Types of phytochemicals used as functional foods

Read our latest article on: Effect of Ukraine invasion on food chains

  • Functional Foods · Contributors: Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN · Published January 6, 2022 ·
  • Functional Foods As Personalised Nutrition: Definitions and Genomic Insights · Sujata Mohanty and Kopal Singhal · January 2018 ·
  • Plant-based functional foods and phytochemicals · Ganesh Gaikwad,Rajesh Kshirsagar, Bharat Agarkar December 12 , 2020 ·
  • Plant-based functional foods and phytochemicals · Aditya sharma ·

Related Articles