"Bioactive compounds" are extranutritional constituents that typically occur in small quantities in foods. They are being intensively studied to evaluate their effects on health. The impetus sparking this scientific inquiry was the result of many epidemiologic studies that have shown protective effects of plant-based diets on cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer. Many bioactive compounds have been discovered. These compounds vary widely in chemical structure and function and are grouped accordingly. Phenolic compounds, including their subcategory, flavonoids, are present in all plants and have been studied extensively in cereals, legumes, nuts, olive oil, vegetables, fruits, tea, and red wine. Many phenolic compounds have antioxidant properties, and some studies have demonstrated favorable effects on thrombosis and tumorogenesis and promotion. Although some epidemiologic studies have reported protective associations between flavonoids or other phenolics and CVD and cancer, other studies have not found these associations. Various phytoestrogens are present in soy, but also in flaxseed oil, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. They have antioxidant properties, and some studies demonstrated favorable effects on other CVD risk factors, and in animal and cell culture models of cancer. However, because phytoestrogens act both as partial estrogen agonists and antagonists, their effects on cancer are likely complex. Hydroxytyrosol, one of many phenolics in olives and olive oil, is a potent antioxidant. Resveratrol, found in nuts and red wine, has antioxidant, antithrombotic, and anti-inflammatory properties, and inhibits carcinogenesis. Lycopene, a potent antioxidant carotenoid in tomatoes and other fruits, is thought to protect against prostate and other cancers, and inhibits tumor cell growth in animals. Organosulfur compounds in garlic and onions, isothiocyanates in cruciferous vegetables, and monoterpenes in citrus fruits, cherries, and herbs have anticarcinogenic actions in experimental models, as well as cardioprotective effects. In summary, numerous bioactive compounds appear to have beneficial health effects. Much scientific research needs to be conducted before we can begin to make science-based dietary recommendations. Despite this, there is sufficient evidence to recommend consuming food sources rich in bioactive compounds. From a practical perspective, this translates to recommending a diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, oils, and nuts.
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