What Are Polyphenols

There’s a reason why your mom always told you to eat your fruits and vegetables. Turns out that reason was polyphenols. Polyphenols are powerful plant compounds naturally found in several varieties of food sources such as wine, green tea, grapes, and red-colored fruit, and coffee. Polyphenols have been the topic of research amongst several studies highlighting their potential role in the prevention and treatment of various pathological conditions connected to oxidative stress and inflammation. We’re going to talk more about what polyphenols are, what they do, and how you can get more polyphenols into your diet.

What Are Polyphenols 

Polyphenols are organic compounds primarily found in plants. They compromise a wide family of molecules bearing one or more phenolic rings. A growing body of research indicates that polyphenols may play a vital role in health through the regulation of metabolism, weight, chronic disease, and cell proliferation. Over 8,000 polyphenols have been identified, yet research is still needed to determine their short- and long-term health effects. Studies show that polyphenols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that could have preventative and or therapeutic effects on cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disorders, cancer, and obesity [R].

How Do Polyphenols Work 

Current evidence suggests that the long-term consumption of polyphenol-rich foods can protect against certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis, gastrointestinal disease, lung damage, and neurodegenerative disease. The mechanism for which polyphenols provide these types of health benefits is attributed to the “biochemical scavenger theory,” which posits that polyphenolic compounds negate free radicals by forming stabilized chemical complexes, thus preventing further reactions [R]. Additional evidence exists, supporting a second mechanism, elucidating by which polyphenols protect against oxidative stress by producing hydrogen peroxide (H202), which can then help to regulate immune response actions, like cellular growth [R].

Types Of Polyphenols

More than 8,000 types of polyphenols have been identified, yet the effects of each individual molecule have yet to be determined. Food usually contains complex polyphenols, predominantly found in the outer layers of the plant. At this time, polyphenols can be divided into four different groups based on the number of phenolic groups and structural elements.

  • Flavonoids. These account for around 60% of all polyphenols. Examples include quercetin, kaempferol, catechins found in green tea, and anthocyanins, which are found in foods like apples, beet, pomegranate, black beans, and tart cherries.
  • Phenolic acids. This group accounts for around 30% of all polyphenols. which include stilbenes and lignans, and are mostly found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and pumpkin seeds
  • Polyphenolic amides. This category includes capsaicinoids in chili peppers and avenanthramides in oats.
  • Other polyphenols. This group includes resveratrol in red wine, ellagic acid in berries, curcumin in turmeric, and lignans in flax seeds, sesame seeds, and whole grains. 

Benefits of Polyphenols

1. Polyphenols May Benefit Heart Health

Anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol found in a variety of different reds ingredients, such as blueberries, raspberries, black beans, tart cherries, beets, red apples, pomegranate, raisins, prunes, and eggplant have shown to improve heart health, by efficiently reducing blood pressure and cholesterol through their powerful anti-inflammatory effects.  

Antioxidants help protect your body from detrimental environmental factors, known as free radicals which can cause cellular damage. Researchers believe that polyphenols may provide cardiovascular health benefits largely due to their antioxidant properties, which can reduce inflammation.

2. Polyphenols May Lower Blood Sugar

One of the major benefits of polyphenols is balancing blood sugar levels, contributing to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Research indicates that polyphenols may inhibit alpha-amylase and alpha-glucosidase, inhibiting glucose absorption in the intestine and preventing the breakdown of starch into simple sugars.  

Apples contain flavonoids, a certain type of polyphenol. Several studies have shown that apples may lower the risk of contracting type 2 diabetes. In fact, a comprehensive review of apples and their relation to human health found that eating 2-6 apples per week, reduced the risk of diabetes by 28% [R]. In a large ongoing trial, The Women’s Health Study, flavonoid intake was also associated with the risk of diabetes and related markers of insulin resistance and inflammation [R].

Interestingly enough, cocoa extract is rich in polyphenolic compounds specifically flavonoids and epicatechins. Eating dark chocolate or supplementing cocoa extract is linked to improved insulin resistance by reducing oxidative stress. When epicatechins is absorbed by the body, it activates an insulin signaling pathway, which causes a mild increase in glucose uptake. Increased glucose uptake helps the body uptake sugar from the blood more effectively [R

3. Polyphenols May Reduce Your Risk Of Cancer 

Foods such as soy or edamame contain a flavonoid, called isoflavones. Several observational studies have shown that estrogen modulatory effects of isoflavones are theorized to reduce the risk of breast cancer in women [R]. Other studies have also pointed that isoflavone-rich foods are also associated with lowered risk of breast cancer later in life [R].

In men, prostate cancer is the second most diagnosed cancer worldwide and the fourth most common type of cancer overall. Intervention studies involving prostate cancer patients generally show that isoflavone exposure slows the rise in prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels [R]. Therefore, adding more edamame to your diet may provide protective effects against some types of cancer.

Therefore, polyphenols, specifically flavonoids such as anthocyanins, catechins, flavanols, flavones, flavanones, and isoflavones, may neutralize free radicals and decrease cancer risk by arresting cellular growth in tumors.

Polyphenol Rich Foods

Polyphenols can be found in a variety of fruit, vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts, grains, herbs, and spices. On average 100g of fresh fruit will contain upwards of 300mg of polyphenols. Typically, a cup of tea or coffee or a glass of red wine contains more than 100 mg of polyphenols. In addition, cereals, vegetables, dry legumes, and chocolate or cocoa also contribute to polyphenolic intake.

Benefits Of Polyphenols: Takeaway 

Researchers have taken an active interest in investigating the effects and benefits of polyphenols on chronic disease states, due to the powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that polyphenol-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and specific herbs and spices, can have a dramatic and profound impact on overall health, reducing your risk for coronary heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Turns out mom was right; fruits and veggies can help you obtain the vital phytonutrients you need to improve your health and wellness. 

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Cory, Hannah et al. “The Role of Polyphenols in Human Health and Food Systems: A Mini-Review.” Frontiers in nutrition vol. 5 87. 21 Sep. 2018, doi:10.3389/fnut.2018.00087

Ganesan, Kumar, and Baojun Xu. “A Critical Review on Polyphenols and Health Benefits of Black Soybeans.” Nutrients vol. 9,5 455. 4 May. 2017, doi:10.3390/nu9050455

Silva, Rui F M, and Lea Pogačnik. “Polyphenols from Food and Natural Products: Neuroprotection and Safety.” Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 9,1 61. 10 Jan. 2020, doi:10.3390/antiox9010061

Kim, Yoona et al. “Polyphenols and Glycemic Control.” Nutrients vol. 8,1 17. 5 Jan. 2016, doi:10.3390/nu8010017


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