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The Mediterranean Diet: Phytochemicals In Vegetables

Updated on October 26, 2009

You should always strive to increase the variety of vegetables you eat and you'll be well on the way to reaching your Mediterranean diet goals!

Vegetables are an essential component of the Mediterranean diet, as vegetables are a important source of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are chemical compounds in plant products that protect the plant from the harsh environment the plant lives in (UV rays, wind, insects, etc). Studies in test tubes and in animal models suggest that phytochemicals have properties that would help fight diseases, like cancer and heart disease. It has been known for a long time that people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables have much less disease than those who do not. The phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables may help explain the good health associated with eating fruits and vegetables.

One of the more important groups of phytochemicals in vegetables are the carotenoids, which give deep color to fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids need fat to be absorbed, so remember to use olive oil in your vegetable preparation.

There are several basic components of the traditional Mediterranean diet which are extremely rich in phytochemicals. First of all:

Artichokes - Cynara scolymus

The Italian word for artichoke is carciofo which is from Southern Italian dialect articiocco. The word is a corruption of the Arabic word al'quarshuf. The artichoke is a kind of thistle, with the edible parts being the fleshy base of the leaves and the heart. Evidence of the artichoke dates to over a thousand years B.C. The artichoke is native to the Mediterranean region and may have first grown in Sicily.

Although the artichoke is thought to have been a delicacy in early Rome, Pliny, in his Book 19, speaks of the artichoke as "thus we turn into a corrupt feast the earth's monstrosities, those which even the animals instinctively avoid". Sicily was the main site of artichoke cultivation in Italy until the 15th century when it spread throughout the rest of Italy. Catherine de'Medici was responsible to introduce the artichoke to France.

The artichoke was first brought to North America at the beginning of the 20th century by Italian immigrants. A group of Italians settled around Half Moon Bay in California and began to plant artichokes. The first shipment to the east coast was made in 1906 and its fame spread from there. The artichoke is the source of a compound called cynarin. Cynarin in a food has the curious effect of making other food eaten at the same time appear to taste sweet. Cynarin is the basic flavoring in the famous Italian aperitif Cynar.

Some of the phytochemicals present in artichokes include:

Anthocyanins: Anthocyanins are a form of antioxidant that has been shown to have the capability of lowering the risk of cancer as well as ameliorating urinary tract health. There is also some evidence that it may help to maintain healthy memory function in the aging.

Caffeic Acid and Chlorogenic Acid: These compounds have been shown to contain antimicrobial and anti-viral properties and in some cases anti-cancer ones as well. They are also acknowledged to assist in lowering bad (LDL) cholesterol.

Gallic Acid: Gallic Acid is an antioxidant which has been demonstrated to help inhibit the proliferation of prostate cancer cells.

Luteolin and Cynarin: Antioxidants that may assist in the overall lowering of cholesterol levels.

Quercetin and Silymarin: These are flavonoids which may have some form of protective function against cirrhosis of the liver, cancer and heart disease.

Continued In The Mediterranean Diet: Phytochemicals In Citrus

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