Phytochemistry is a discipline of natural product chemistry, which comes under the broader umbrella of pharmacognosy – the discipline of the discovery of drugs from natural sources. What are the medicinal compounds which can be discovered from nature?
This includes terrestrial plants, marine plants and organisms, bacteria, fungi, and more. The most potent antibiotic was derived from bacteria, and penicillin comes from a type of mold.
Phytochemicals refer specifically to compounds that occur naturally in plants (fruits, vegetables, nuts, and more). They are an inherent part of any plant, contributing to their texture, flavor, and medicinal properties. These compounds are not macronutrients, but rather, they are secondary metabolites. That means that although they may not be essential to health like vitamins or minerals, they can have a significant impact and give the organism a competitive advantage.
Of the more than 3000 phytochemicals identified to date, one well-known example is salicylic acid, the main component found in aspirin. It comes from the bark of the willow tree, which people used to chew in medieval England to benefit from its pain-relieving properties.
Another example is the Madagascar Periwinkle flower, which produces very toxic chemotherapy drugs called Vinblastine and Vincristine.
As an ethnic fourth-generation Indian having grown up in Guyana in South America, Seeram grew up with a tradition of using food as medicine, because doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceuticals were not always accessible or affordable given the general poverty level of the country.
This concept of using plants as first line of defense against harmful diseases piqued his interest, because it was normal for his mother or grandmother to tell him to boil a specific plant and drink the infusion to sooth a stomach or a tooth ache.
During his undergraduate studies in chemistry and his ensuing PhD in Jamaica, Seeram explored what happens when phytochemicals get into the body, under the framework of forensic sciences.
Over the years, Seeram has spent time at Michigan State University studying the properties of tart cherries; at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) looking at the beneficial compounds in blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and the pomegranate; and at the University of Rhode Island exploring the characteristics of indigenous plants such as the maple tree.
While the plant he focuses on may change, a constant is that it is what is in the food that is responsible for providing benefits to our health. The interest lies in identifying the specific molecules that cause the health benefits we tend to attribute to the whole food or plant.