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Did you get your dose of Zoochemicals today?

Posted on September 21st, 2010 by Jeff Thiboutot M.S.

It is likely that you have heard of the term “phytonutrients” or “phytochemicals”; the multitude of chemicals found in plants that have health promoting abilities. However, I bet you have not heard of the term zoochemicals. This is not some group of chemicals that gets zoo animals to do tricks on command. Rather, the term zoochemcials is a general term for the many chemicals found in animal products that can have health promoting properties. (1) As you will see, it is regrettable that this term is not as commonly used as phytochemicals because there are a number of chemicals found in animal foods that have similar or maybe even greater potential for health benefits than do phytochemcials.

Before highlighting the zoochemicals, I will offer my two cents about why there is a lack of awareness or appreciation of zoochemcials. I think the current view or awareness is largely due to the ubiquitous myth that animal foods need to be consumed with great caution, particularly those that have higher fat amounts. Animal foods can be eaten, but there are often many caveats connected to the recommendation. The warnings usually have to do with the fat and cholesterol content of the food and the general view that eating higher amounts of animal products will cause many diseases, particularly heart disease and cancer. For example, the book The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods by two popular naturopathic doctors, Michael Murray and Joseph Pizzorno, have these types of warnings scattered throughout the book. For instance, they state “We suggest you limit your intake of red meat (beef, veal, or lamb) to no more two servings per month and choose the leanest cuts possible” (p.14) “Milk and cheese are often loaded with fat and cholesterol, which at elevated levels lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer” (p.569) and finally “While moderate consumption of meat and animal products may be health promoting, there is no question that overconsumption of these foods is spurring a global epidemic of lifestyle diseases, such as heart attack, strokes, and cancers…”(p.596).(2) Regrettably, in general, these types of statements are ever-present in the nutrition field. This is regrettable because the evidence for such caution is weak and, in fact, eating animal products is actually more likely to contribute to a more positive health effect than a negative one. (3,4,5,6,7,8) This will be considered heresy by many, but I really think that the evidence is clear on this topic. This does not mean that everyone needs to eat high amounts of animal products to be healthy. However, it is clear that humans, healthy ones, have subsisted on widely varying diets. But, there is not a single human culture/tribe etc. that purposefully avoided eating animal products and the general consensus is that animal products were hunted and eaten whenever possible. Additionally, there are a number of cultures that have been meticulously studied that eat close to a completely carnivorous diet (no plant products) and have been exceptionally healthy and typically lived a long life if they made it past infancy or avoided some type of infectious disease.(3,8)

I want to point out that there are legitimate ethical, moral and environmental concerns associated with many aspects of the typical animal production (factory farms) in the US and other countries. However, these concerns, in no way, take away from the fact that the human body should be eating animal products. The anatomical, evolutionary, cultural, and clinical evidence is clear that humans thrive when animal products are available. (3,4,5,7,8) Related to this aspect is the quality of animal products, i.e. grain-fed vs grass-fed, hormone use and so on. Yes there is a difference, but the difference is not usually huge. But, overall, it is best that the animal products that you ingest are high quality. That is all that will be said on this for now, as these subjects need their own post/discussion in order to clearly elaborate on the many points related to them.

The following are the nutrients/chemicals that are found only in animal products or found in relatively high amounts compared to most plant foods. There will be exceptions, such as seaweeds for iodine and so forth, but considering foods that are commonly consumed the animal foods will often have a greater nutrient density than plant foods (nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrients per serving size of foods). Also realize that the foods listed below are the foods that naturally have the nutrient in it. Therefore, foods that have been fortified/enriched with a certain nutrient are not listed.

The details of each nutrient will not be discussed here, but you can assume that each one of them can play an important role in promoting a high level of health. However, the amounts of accessory nutrients (the zoochemcials) that can be ingested from food itself will often not reach the amounts used for assisting in health problems or clinical trials. This does not mean that at these levels cannot help keep a person healthy. Besides containing these items, most animal foods are a very good source of many B-vitamins and high quality proteins. It is important to realize that many whole foods contain numerous substances that are beneficial and it is often misguided to reduce a complex food down to a specific nutrient. It has repeatedly been shown that the many nutrients found in foods work synergistically.(11) Therefore, it is usually best to get all of your nutrients from real, high-quality foods. However, there are situations, like food aversions, health conditions, seasons, athletic goals, and many others, when supplementing your diet with specific nutrients is needed and helpful.

As you can see from the above details, animal based products are a great source of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, and other accessory nutrients that are important for health. The ability to have a nutrient dense diet is not hindered, in fact it is usually improved, when quality animal products are included in the diet. For those following a smart low-carbohydrate diet or for those thinking about it, it should be clear that basing your diet around high-quality animal products is good for your health.

1 – Hasler, C. (2002). Functional foods: benefits, concerns and challenges – A position paper from the American Council on Science and Health. J Nutri; 132: 3772-3781.
2 – Murry M. et al (2005). The encyclopedia of healing foods. Atria Books. New York.
3 – Abrams, H.L. (1980). Vegetarianism: An anthropological/nutritional evaluation. J Appl Nutr; 32(2): 53-86.
4 – Cohen, M. (1989). Health and the rise of civilization. Yale University Press. New Haven, Conn.
5 – Cordain, L. et al (2000). Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets. Am J Clin Nutr; 71: 682-692.
6 – Frassetto, LA. Et al (2009). Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. Eur J Clin Nutr: 1-9.
7 – Mann, N. (2000). Dietary lean red meat and human evolution. Eur J Nutr; 39: 71-79.
8 – Price, W. (2000). Nutrition and physical degeneration. Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation. La Mesa, CA.
9 – Whitney, EN. & Rolfes, SR. (2002). Understanding Nutrition. Wadsworth. Belmont, CA.
10 – Zeisel, S. et al (2003). Concentrations of choline-containing compounds and betaine in common foods. J Nutr; 133: 1302-1307.
11 – Milner, J.A. (2004). Molecular targets for bioactive food components. J Nutr; 134: 2492S-2498S.

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5 Responses to “Did you get your dose of Zoochemicals today?”

  1. Matt Schoeneberger M.S. says:

    Jeff, I have a question.

    From your post:
    “There will be exceptions, such as seaweeds for iodine and so forth, but considering foods that are commonly consumed the animal foods will often have a greater nutrient density than plant foods (nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrients per serving size of foods)”

    When you mention serving size, what does that mean? Is there a standard caloric value that represents a serving size? Could this also be translated as amount of nutrient per calorie?

    This seems important for weight loss purposes, since ultimately we want to be getting the most nutrients per calorie, regardless of what ‘serving size’.


  2. Jeff Thiboutot M.S. says:

    A “serving size” is actually a rather arbitrary concept. Here is what a leading nutrition textbook states “What counts as a serving? The answer differs for each food group and for various foods within groups” (p.37).(1) For example, a serving sizes for meats, which includes red meat, poultry, seafood, etc, is typically considered 3 ounces. But a serving of eggs, which are in the same category, is 1 whole egg. The calories and macronutrient content of these two servings are very different. Also, the caloric and macronutrient amounts between the “meats” can vary substantially. Serving sizes like the ones just mentioned are set by the USDA and is related to the food pyramid. So basically, it seems that the more of a food that is recommended in the Food Pyramid, for instance grains are the base of the pyramid with 6-11 servings a day, the larger the serving size and the greater number of servings.

    So the USDA serving sizes are not based on a standard caloric value, they are based on the Food Pyramid with its many potential flaws.(2) There are some attempts to categorize foods by their nutrient density, such as NUTRIENT BALANCE INDICATOR™ created at the website, but they seem to be flawed and biased against fat, particularly saturated fat, and cholesterol, therefore, foods with higher amounts of these nutrients will automatically have low scores.

    How many servings of a food should be eaten will be determined by the specific diet a person is consuming. Also, when it comes to nutrient density, meats will often have more macronutrients and micronutrients for a given SIZE or PORTION of food. However, there are a number of plant foods, because they have very low amounts of fat, can have a higher nutrient density PER CALORIE, but to consume the volume needed to acquire then same amount of nutrients is challenging for many people and can actually just be overwhelming because of the very high volume that needs to be consumed. However, there is also the amount of nutrients that will actually be absorbed that needs to be considered. Foods may have more of a nutrient but it is not well absorbed and vice versa, it may have a lower amount of a nutrient but more of it is absorbed. As you can see there are many variables in determining serving sizes and nutrient density of foods.

    1 – Whitney, EN. & Rolfes, SR. (2002). Understanding Nutrition.
    2 – Ottoboni, A. & Ottoboni, F. (2004). The Food Guide Pyramid: Will the defects be corrected? J Amer Phys & Surg; 9(4): 109-113.

  3. [...] etc substances from non-starchy veggies. Not to mention that there are numerous substances (zoochemicals) found in animal based foods that have many health promoting [...]

  4. Magnificent website. Plenty of helpful information here.
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    And obviously, thank you in your sweat!

  5. Brigette says:

    Wuaaa informasinya terlalu aktual, terimakasih ya udah berbagi infonya

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