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7 Natural Medicines in Food

There are hundreds of compounds in foods that offer protection against various illnesses, which is why we subscribe wholeheartedly to the “Food as Medicine” paradigm. Here are seven of the most helpful substances that do battle on behalf of your body and are natural medicines in food:


Major antioxidants include vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, lycopene, selenium, and zinc. We are betting you have heard of all of those, but probably didn’t realize they were also categorized as antioxidants. These substances are thought to be effective in helping to prevent cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Here’s how: While you need oxygen to survive, certain unstable forms of oxygen molecules (called free radicals) can wreak havoc on healthy cells by randomly interfering with normal cell growth and activity. Damage caused by these free radicals is believed to be responsible for initiating cancer and premature aging, and for promoting plaque formation in arteries, which impairs blood flow throughout the body. Antioxidants can prevent the formation of free radicals, or if already formed, can help stop them in their tracks before they do damage.

Scientists use several tests to measure the antioxidant content of foods. One of the best tests is the FRAP (ferric reducing ability of plasma) analysis. FRAP measures the antioxidant content of foods by how well they can neutralize a specific free radical. According to the FRAP test, five foods highest in antioxidants (per 100 grams) include dark chocolate (no added sugars or wonky ingredients–just high cocoa content), pecans, blueberries, strawberries, and artichokes. A good rule of thumb is the richer the hue, the better for you (think dark fruits and veggies).


These compounds may help prevent the development of certain cancers and contain antiviral properties. The bioflavonoid catechin, for example, is found in green tea and berries, and some studies suggest it can reduce the risk of stomach cancer and guard against infection. Foods high in catechins include fresh fruits. Some of the largest concentrations of catechins per serving occur in apples (keep the peel on), apricots, cherries, peaches, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries.

Ellagic Acid

Found in cherries, grapes, strawberries, and walnuts, ellagic acid prevents naturally occurring carcinogens from turning healthy cells into cancerous ones. An example of naturally occurring carcinogens is mycotoxins, which can at can grow on stored grains, nuts, and peanut butter.

Plants produce ellagic acid as a defense mechanism against infection and pests. Now, that is some natural medicine in food. 


There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber, found in apples, oats, and broccoli, has been shown to lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease. Pectin is a soluble fiber found in apples and grapefruit that may also serve as a potent cancer protector. Insoluble fiber, found in wheat and beans, speeds the movement of food through the intestine, preventing digestive disorders like diverticulosis.


Legumes, including soybeans, chickpeas, fava beans, pistachios, and peanuts contain this type of polyphenol that prevents the growth of estrogen-dependent tumor cells, like those found in breast cancer. Of these, soybeans are the richest source. Soy isoflavones are only a small part of soybeans and soy ingredients. Therefore, soy-containing foods should not be equated with isoflavones.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3s are found primarily in marine plant life, which explains why certain fish that feed on omega-3-rich plants are such good sources of this substance. Mackerel, salmon, and herring are (good) fatty fish to up your omega intake. Chia seeds are another fabulous supplier of omega-3s. Studies show that these fatty acids lower cholesterol and are natural blood thinners. They may help lower the risk of heart disease, depression, dementia, and arthritis. Your body can’t make them. You have to eat them or take supplements. Omega-3s also protect against certain cancers by decreasing the amount and size of tumors. 

Folic Acid

This member of the vitamin B family lives in dark leafy green vegetables like broccoli and spinach, and in legumes. Folic acid guards against birth defects such as spina bifida and are believed to help prevent cervical, colon, and rectal cancers. Additionally, it is a helpful vitamin in relieving symptoms of stress, depression, and memory loss.  

Poor dietary choices are a major element in the expanding issues related to chronic disease. When you begin to view food as natural medicine, it becomes a powerful approach to health and healing and a big part of the solution. And, when you understand exactly how it is that food can prevent and heal, you quickly become enlightened and inspired to make great change. 

For more information on our functional nutrition approach, click here.