A phytonutrient is a substance that is found in certain plants and has been demonstrated to be beneficial to human health and to have a role in preventing various diseases. However, it isn’t classed as a nutrient. There are a number of naturally occurring phytonutrients in Huel that are present from the oats and flaxseeds – which together make up over 60% of Huel – as well as some that we’ve added to Huel from natural sources as there are significant health benefits.
Many phytonutrients act as antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances that inhibit oxidation. Oxidation is a naturally occurring process involving the production of free-radicals in the body. Whilst production of free-radicals is inevitable as a byproduct of exercise and the ageing process, we need to quash as many as possible before they have the potential to do damage. Free-radicals are associated with the disease process of heart disease, stroke and some cancers as well as the signs of ageing. Antioxidant nutrients we obtain from our food include vitamins C and E and the mineral selenium. There are a number of phytonutrients that also act as antioxidants so it’s vital that we include these in our nutrition to help protect against disease.
One group of antioxidant phytonutrients are the carotenoids. Carotenoids are a class of over 750 yellow, orange and red pigments synthesised by plants. Many of them have antioxidant activity, and some have other health benefits.
Another important group of phytonutrients are phenolic compounds. There are a large number of phenolic compounds found in plant foods that act as antioxidants or benefit health in other ways. Oats contain nearly 10 times higher levels of free and conjugated phenolics than other grains.
The following are the main phytonutrients present in Huel:
Lycopene is thought to be the strongest antioxidant carotenoid 1 and has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers 2. The lycopene in Huel is naturally obtained from tomatoes and maize, and added as part of the bespoke micronutrient blend. It is responsible for the red flecks you sometimes see in Huel.
Although not essential per se, there is concern that diets low in this carotenoid may lead to macular degeneration of the eye in the elderly, as lutein is involved in eye pigment development 3,4. Lutein is also an interesting antioxidant. A small amount of lutein in Huel is present from the flaxseeds, and we've also added additional natural lutein extracted from the Mexican marigold plant.
Zeaxanthin is another carotenoid which is both an antioxidant and is involved in the prevention of macular degeneration 4. The zeaxanthin in Huel is provided as part of the addition of the natural lutein extract.
This phenolic compound in Huel has high antioxidant activity and is provided from the oats and flaxseeds. It also acts as an antibacterial agent that has also been shown to have anti-cancer properties 5.
These are phenolic alkaloids almost uniquely found in oats and, as oats are the largest ingredient in Huel, it is rich in avenanthramides. They have been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects 6,7. There are over 20 distinct types of avenanthramides with the three most prevalent being aven-A, -B and -C. Aven-C has been shown to have the highest antioxidant capacity 8,9, and it’s abundant in oats and therefore in Huel.
Lignans and lignan precursors
Lignans are phenolic antioxidants which are particularly prevalent in flaxseeds and they are also present in oats. Lignan precursors are converted to active lignans by the bacteria in our intestines 10. The main lignans and lignan precursors found in Huel are secoisolariciresinol (flaxseeds), pinoresinol (flaxseeds, oats), lariciresinol (flaxseeds, oats), matairesinol (flaxseeds, oats) and hydroxymatairesinol (oats) 11. Intake of lignans from flaxseeds has been associated with reduced cardiovascular disease risk 12.
Tocols are natural antioxidants and include terpenes, terpenoids, tocopherols and tocotrienols some of which act as vitamin E, and all are strong antioxidants, although tocotrienols are the strongest 13. There are significant amounts of a number of tocols present in Huel.
Too often we hear bad things about phytic acid as it can act as an antinutrient; i.e. it can reduce the bioavailability for some minerals, especially iron and zinc. However, phytic acid is a strong and effective antioxidant 14. Although we need iron in our diet, it behaves as a free radical, contributing to oxidative stress in the body, so phytic acid’s ability to sequester and trap iron is beneficial. Phytic acid can also bind heavy metals (e.g. cadmium, lead) and helps prevent their accumulation in the body. There is also evidence that it could be anticarcinogenic 15.
Beta-glucans are a type of soluble fibre and are a structural component of the cell walls of oats. There is particular interest in these as they have been shown to positively lower blood cholesterol levels and therefore may help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke 16,17. Beta-glucans have also been shown to help lower the blood glucose response after a meal which improves insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism 18,19,20.
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