Phytochemicals may well be one of those buzz words that you’ve heard but aren’t too sure what it actually means. Well, at the most basic level, a phytochemical is a chemical compound produced by a plant. Their purpose is usually to protect the plant from pests and diseases. This characteristic has made phytochemicals the subject of much interest and research in a number of industries, including the healthcare, pharmaceuticals, nutrition and agri-food sectors.
Harnessing the potential of plants
The study of phytochemicals has shed light on different ways in which these compounds could potentially be used to improve our day-to-day lives. Used effectively, phytochemicals could help protect food plants and crops from insect and fungal attack – an application that becomes ever more urgent as the world’s population continues to expand. Isolating these compounds has already delivered real public health benefits. For example, the phytochemical Salicin, found naturally in Willow bark, is the origin of the drug we know today as Aspirin. Another crucial breakthrough that has its roots in plant phytochemicals is the drug Taxol. This is derived from Paclitaxel, which is found in yew trees. It has been helping combat cancer since the 1990s and is on the WHO’s Model List of Essential Medicines. However, all of these developments required extensive research, which in turn could not have happened without the use of the relevant phytochemical substance. This is a reference substance or standard which is pure enough to act as a benchmark, enabling tests to be carried out in relation to the efficacy, possible allergies and dosage of new drugs or preparations.
Phytochemicals in the health-food sector
Although these compounds are not classified as essential nutrients, there is also great interest in seeing how they may be able to contribute to nutritional health. The family of phytochemicals includes carotenoids, phytosterols and polyphenols like flavonoids. One of the best known health-foods, no matter where you are in the world, is Ginseng. Research into the biological properties of ginsenosides, phytochemicals found in Ginseng roots and leaves, is currently underway, requiring the use of a high-quality ginsenoside standard. This is where a company such as Extrasynthese, a French firm which produces reference standards for the healthcare sector, amongst others, comes into its own.