It is commonly accepted among health care professionals that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help prevent cancer, and the cancer-fighting compounds in produce are the result of phyto-chemicals.
Phyto comes from the Greek work “plant”. Phyto-chemicals are healing compounds that plants make as part of their natural self-defense system. When a plant is stressed, by an insect attack, for example, the plant increases its production of phyto-chemicals to repair the damaged cells. There are thousands of different phyto-chemicals that protect plants from a variety of environmental stressors.
The anti-oxidants in our food come from these phyto-chemicals. Lycopene, lutein, alpha- and beta-carotene, flavonoids, glucosinolates, and other anti-oxidants are derived from phyto-chemicals. These compounds are proven to help prevent cancer and a host of other maladies. And the evidence suggests you cannot benefit from these anti-oxidants through supplements; you must get them through your diet.
Unfortunately, the concentration of phyto-nutrients in conventional produce is rapidly declining, and chemical pesticides are a major culprit. Chemical pesticides remove many of the natural triggers plants require to produce their phyto-nutrients. Dr. Allyson Mitchell of UC-Davis says there are 30% more phyto-nutrients in organic produce compared to conventional produce, due to the absence of chemical pesticides.
Other studies show that phyto-nutrients are declining in large-scale agriculture due to soil health, plant selection, the harvesting of unripe fruit, and long shipping times to market. None of these factors are an issue in your own garden.
While the level of anti-oxidants in conventional produce is declining, the presence of chemical pesticide residue is on the rise. Dr. Vyvyan Howard, a toxicologist from the University of Liverpool, claims that we have some 500 chemical toxins in our bodies that our great-grandparents never had, simply because the chemicals weren’t invented yet. And 95% of those toxins come from our food.
There is no debate in the scientific community about the presence of chemical pesticides in conventional produce; the only debate is about the long-term health consequences of these toxins.
In the year 1901, the average American family spent 42% of their household income on food; today, Americans spend less than 10% on food. Unfortunately, much of the 30% in savings is now being spent on health care. It is difficult to ignore the correlation.
Hippocrates, the celebrated Greek physician, said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” To get the most out of your diet, the best medicine chest of all may well be your own garden.