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Polyphenols Demystified

Understanding their unique health benefits

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Polyphenols Demystified

We know that making fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, and even green tea a part of our diet can have a beneficial effect on our overall health. But what is it that all these healthy foods have in common?

It can’t be fibre, because tea doesn’t have any, nor can it be vitamin content, because herbs aren’t especially abundant in vitamins.

What ties all of these seemingly disparate foods together is the fact that each of them contains high quantities of a family of unique antioxidant compounds known as polyphenols.

Green tea, for example, contains a unique polyphenol compound known as epigallocatechin gallate (ECGC), which is not found in other foods and is thought to have unique antiaging effects on the skin. ECGC is, in fact, a common ingredient in a number of skin care products.

Grapes and blueberries, on the other hand, are abundant in a polyphenol called resveratrol, which has also been recognized for having a similar antiaging potential.

What ties green tea and grapes together—their polyphenol content—is all in the name.

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Chemistry 101—polyphenol edition

Polyphenols are actually tied together by their chemical structure, which is revealed in the way they are named.

Phenols are chemical compounds with a ring structure.

Poly refers to the fact there are many of these rings present.

It is these varying ring structures that are largely responsible for the vibrant and diverse colours characteristic of most polyphenol-rich foods and also the potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that these compounds have in our body.

Emerging evidence suggests polyphenol intake may help protect us against various conditions, including heart disease and cancer, while also reducing bodily inflammation and contributing positively to mental and sexual health.

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Polyphenols—a subfamily affair

Since polyphenol classification requirements are chemically broad, there are many foods that qualify, many of which can be grouped further into unique polyphenol subfamilies.

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Flavonoids

Science strongly points to flavonoids being the polyphenol subfamily of greatest health interest.

A massive study involving more than 56,000 participants in Denmark, for example, demonstrated that individuals with moderate to high flavonoid intake had a lower risk of death by any cause, including heart disease and cancer, over the course of a 23-year study period.

In a 2021 meta-analysis, published in the Antioxidants journal, of 36 studies involving over 2,788 participants, researchers found that flavonoid intake had a significant positive effect on reducing depression symptoms.

There is some very compelling evidence that suggests focusing on flavonoid intake is a meaningful direction to take to support the best possible health.

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Flavonoid subfamilies

If you want to tap into the health benefits of flavonoids, the subfamilies can be used as a checklist. Aim for at least one option from each group per day for a novel and highly beneficial direction shift in your nutrition routine.

Flavonoid subclass

Example compounds

Dietary sources

flavonols

quercetin, kaempferol, myricetin

onions, broccoli, tea, saffron, capers, various fruits

flavones

luteolin, apigenin, tangeretin

parsley, peppermint, oregano, celery, camomile

flavanones

naringenin, hesperetin

rosemary; peppermint; citrus: oranges, grapefruit

flavan-3-ols

catechin, epicatechin, epigallocatechin

cocoa/dark chocolate, apples, grapes, red wine, green tea

anthocyanidins

cyanidin, delphinklin, pelargonidin, malvidin

coloured berries: elderberries, cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, black currants

isoflavones

gernistein, daidzein, glycitein

soy-based foods: tofu, tempeh, miso, soy protein isolate, edamame

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More polyphenols on the daily

While flavonoids are undoubtedly among the most impactful polyphenols, there are still other varieties that deliver meaningful health benefits.

Polyphenol compounds such as lignans, stilbenes, and phenolic acids are associated with a number of health benefits including improving insulin resistance, enhancing the gut microbiome, and reducing bodily inflammation.

Here are four easy ways to access some of these other polyphenol powerhouses.

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Spice things up

Rosemary, thyme, cloves, and ginger are among the most polyphenol-rich herbs and spices. Are they part of your kitchen rotation yet?

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Look for legumes

Plant-based protein sources such as white beans, black beans, tofu, and tempeh are all rich in polyphenols.

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See more red

Red-coloured fruits such as berries, cherries, plums, grapes, and pomegranates are among the fruits with the highest polyphenol content.

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Go nuts (and seeds)

The health benefits of regularly incorporating nuts and seeds are numerous; this is due in part to their polyphenol content—especially in flaxseed, almonds, walnuts, and pecans.

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Supplemental polyphenols—benefits beyond food

As scientifically fascinating as they are, it’s important to remember that the polyphenol content of a food is only one of its salient characteristics.

Many sources of polyphenols are traditionally healthy foods that are also high in a number of other beneficial compounds including dietary fibre and a plethora of key nutrients ranging from magnesium to monounsaturated fat.

While compounds such as ECGC (found in green tea), resveratrol (found in grapes), and quercetin (found in various fruits and veggies) have all garnered significant public attention, they can be easily accessed through diet.

“Food first” is generally a good approach to dietary polyphenols, but some people may benefit by considering polyphenols in their supplemental form.

Curcumin, the bioactive compound found in the spice turmeric, is probably the ultimate example of this. Known to have low bioavailability when ingested naturally as a spice, this increases when used in supplemental form, where it is often combined with piperine (a component of black pepper). This combination significantly increases curcumin’s bioavailability.

Studies have demonstrated a supporting role for this duo in a number of conditions, including metabolic syndrome, arthritis, hyperlipidemia, and anxiety while also being considered a potent anti-inflammatory compound that warrants much more investigation into potential management and treatment of oxidative and inflammatory conditions.

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