Sunday Herald Sun - Body and Soul - - FRONT PAGE - BY Sharon Labi

If you eat the rec­om­mended five serves of veg­eta­bles and two of fruit a day, you’re al­ready a gi­ant step ahead of the 90 per cent of Aus­tralians who don’t. But new re­search sug­gests that many peo­ple might not be eat­ing the best types of veg­eta­bles to give them vi­tal phy­tonu­tri­ents, the nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring plant com­pounds that help pro­tect against chronic dis­ease and even some can­cers.

The most com­monly eaten sources of these ben­e­fi­cial nu­tri­ents, such as car­rots and or­anges, aren’t nec­es­sar­ily go­ing to do the most to im­prove your health.

In­stead, the Amer­i­can re­searchers who re­cently pre­sented their find­ings to the 2010 Ex­per­i­men­tal Bi­ol­ogy con­fer­ence in Ana­heim, Cal­i­for­nia, rec­om­mend re­plac­ing the most com­monly con­sumed fruits and veg­eta­bles with “pow­er­house” al­ter­na­tives such as sweet potato, pa­paya, rasp­ber­ries and the less com­mon kale and wa­ter­cress.


The sci­en­tists found that for 10 of the 14 phy­tonu­tri­ents stud­ied, a sin­gle food type ac­counted for two-thirds or more of a per­son’s con­sump­tion.

Whether the in­di­vid­ual was a high or low con­sumer of fruit and veg­eta­bles ap­peared to make no dif­fer­ence.

The most pop­u­lar food sources for five key phy­tonu­tri­ents were car­rots (beta-carotene), or­anges or orange juice (beta-cryp­tox­an­thin), spinach (lutein and zeax­an­thin), straw­ber­ries (el­lagic acid) and mus­tard (isoth­io­cyanates).

How­ever, for each of these phy­tonu­tri­ents, there was a bet­ter food source avail­able: sweet pota­toes (nearly dou­ble the beta-carotene of car­rots); pa­paya (15 times more be­tacryp­tox­an­thin than or­anges); kale (three times more lutein and zeax­an­thin than spinach); rasp­ber­ries (three times more el­lagic acid than straw­ber­ries); and wa­ter­cress (one cup con­tains as much isoth­io­cyanate as four tea­spoons of mus­tard).

Stud­ies here have found that only one in 10 Aus­tralians meets the rec­om­mended in­take of five serves of veg­eta­bles a day, and half meet the sug­gested two serves of fruit.

That means many Aus­tralians are missing out on vi­tal nu­tri­ents; not just power-packed phy­tonu­tri­ents, but es­sen­tial vi­ta­mins and min­er­als.


But be­fore rewrit­ing your shop­ping list, nu­tri­tion­ists say that the best way to en­sure an ad­e­quate sup­ply and va­ri­ety of phy­tonu­tri­ents is to eat from a colour­ful plate.

“I think it’s prob­a­bly a bit rich to nut it down to say­ing these five foods are pow­er­house foods,” says Kel­lie Ho­gan, a nu­tri­tion­ist and di­eti­tian with Nutrition Aus­tralia.

“They’re very use­ful and we know that the brightly coloured fruits and veg­eta­bles and the highly flavoured do tend to be richer sources of an­tiox­i­dants and phy­tonu­tri­ents, which cer­tainly have their health ben­e­fits.

“But in iso­la­tion, with­out a much wider diet un­der­pin­ning these foods, they are not go­ing to be the rea­son some­one is healthy or not healthy.”

Julie Gil­bert, a Bris­bane-based di­eti­tian and a spokes­woman for the Di­eti­tians As­so­ci­a­tion of Aus­tralia, says that rather than re­plac­ing carrot with sweet potato, eat both, as phy­tonu­tri­ents play a key role in good health.

“They ba­si­cally mop up the chem­i­cals that can lead to cell de­struc­tion and that’s what helps to pre­vent things like can­cer,” she says.

Berries are a fan­tas­tic source of phy­tonu­tri­ents and pur­ple plant foods are emerg­ing as the new su­per­foods.

Egg­plant, cab­bage, pur­ple-skinned sweet potato, plums and the not-yet-widely-avail­able-in-Aus­tralia pur­ple carrot are jam­packed with nu­tri­ents, Gil­bert says.

But she cau­tions: “If we just fo­cus on try­ing to achieve high lev­els of phy­tonu­tri­ents through the five foods iden­ti­fied in the study, we’ll miss out on the ben­e­fits of other foods. We should just add them more reg­u­larly into our diet.”

As­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor Manny Noakes, nutrition re­searcher with the CSIRO and author of The CSIRO’s To­tal Well­be­ing Diet (Pen­guin), agrees that fruits and ve­g­ies are not only great sources of vi­ta­mins and min­er­als, but also much-hyped phy­tonu­tri­ents.

DID YOU KNOW? Only one in 10 Aus­tralians eats the rec­om­mended daily in­take of five serves of veg­eta­bles.

She says some foods are quin­tes­sen­tial pow­er­house foods, such as liver, and adds that dif­fer­ent plants are high in one phy­tonu­tri­ent or an­other, mak­ing it im­por­tant to treat our palate to a va­ri­ety.

“Eat­ing a se­lec­tion of those is a sim­ple short­cut to good nutrition,” she says.

Phy­tonu­tri­ents can have very ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects on health, and colour and flavour are usu­ally good in­di­ca­tors of their pres­ence in fruits and veg­eta­bles, she says.

“There’s no doubt we could be im­prov­ing our health and well­be­ing enor­mously by im­prov­ing our diet,” Noakes says. “Very few Aus­tralians eat the rec­om­mended amount, let alone the va­ri­ety, of fruits and veg­eta­bles that they should.”

Three-quar­ters of a din­ner plate should com­prise veg­eta­bles and, while cook­ing them in a lit­tle olive oil can en­hance the ab­sorp­tion of some phy­tonu­tri­ents, peel­ing can de­stroy them.

While you might be tempted to peel fruits and veg­eta­bles to elim­i­nate any pes­ti­cide residue, you’re bet­ter off wash­ing them in­stead. For ex­am­ple, the skin of a red ap­ple is rich in polyphe­nols, a type of phy­tonu­tri­ent, but the ben­e­fits are lost once the ap­ple is peeled.

On the other hand, ly­copene, the phy­tonu­tri­ent found in tomato, is ab­sorbed bet­ter with the as­sis­tance of oil.


Kathy Chap­man, the Can­cer Coun­cil’s nutrition pro­gram man­ager, says Aus­tralians are lucky to have such a va­ri­ety of fruits and veg­eta­bles avail­able, and now it’s time to get mo­ti­vated to eat them.

She says peo­ple per­ceive fruit and veg­eta­bles as ex­pen­sive, un­ex­cit­ing or some­times dif­fi­cult to pre­pare. In­stead of steam­ing car­rots or beans as a side dish, she sug­gests mak­ing a stir-fry with less meat and lots of colour­ful veg­eta­bles.

While re­search is on­go­ing into the pro­tec­tive na­ture of fruits and veg­eta­bles, Chap­man says it’s hard to pin­point one type as the hero.

“In terms of can­cer, be­ing a healthy weight is a re­ally im­por­tant pro­tec­tive fac­tor,” she says. “Those who do eat more fruit and veg­eta­bles are more likely to be a health­ier weight.”

The key mes­sage is va­ri­ety, Chap­man says, be­cause you don’t want to only eat sweet potato, pa­paya, kale, rasp­ber­ries and wa­ter­cress at the ex­pense of other nu­tri­tional ben­e­fits.

“They all have good prop­er­ties, but if you only eat, say, pur­ple cab­bage, you’ll miss out on other nu­tri­ents. All will be do­ing slightly dif­fer­ent things, so you want to be max­imis­ing the ben­e­fits from a va­ri­ety of foods.”

The US study, funded by the sup­ple­ment com­pany Nutrilite Health In­sti­tute, found that if peo­ple ate more con­cen­trated sources of phy­tonu­tri­ents, they could sig­nif­i­cantly im­prove their in­take.

“This data high­lights the im­por­tance of not only the quan­tity but also the sig­nif­i­cant im­pact the qual­ity and va­ri­ety of the fruits and veg­eta­bles you eat can have on your health,” says study leader Dr Keith Ran­dolph.

While re­search shows the health ben­e­fits of eat­ing fruit and veg­eta­bles, Noakes says the ev­i­dence is strong­est when it comes to pre­vent­ing car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­eases such as heart attacks and strokes.

“It may not nec­es­sar­ily be all due to phy­tonu­tri­ents,” she says. “If you eat a lot of fruits and veg­eta­bles, that helps with weight con­trol, which helps with can­cer, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease and di­a­betes.”

Ho­gan says de­spite the hype and the known ben­e­fits, phy­tonu­tri­ents are just one part of a healthy diet.

“What you might be gain­ing in the con­cen­tra­tion of phy­tonu­tri­ents by eat­ing cer­tain foods, you might be los­ing in other nu­tri­ents. We would rec­om­mend eat­ing brightly coloured fruits and veg­eta­bles and a mix­ture of these. Then you get all the dif­fer­ent el­e­ments.”

Phy­tonu­tri­ents are com­pounds found in plants. They can boost the health of the eyes, bones, heart, brain and im­mune sys­tem, and cut the risk of chronic dis­ease.

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