Polyphenols 101: What They Are, Why You Need Them, and Where to Get Them! (Explained by a Dietitian)

Polyphenols 101: What They Are, Why You Need Them, and Where to Get Them! (Explained by a Dietitian)

WHAT ARE POLYPHENOLS?

TYPES OF POLYPHENOLS YOU SHOULD KNOW

TOP 4 HEALTH BENEFITS OF POLYPHENOLS

HOW CAN YOU GET MORE POLYPHENOLS INTO YOUR DAY?

8 POLYPHENOL-PACKED FOODS YOU NEED TO KNOW

ARE YOU GETTING ENOUGH DAILY POLYPHENOLS?

WHAT ARE POLYPHENOLS?

Polyphenols are potent organic chemical compounds known for their protective and regenerative properties for body tissues (1). They are also referred to asphytochemicals orphytonutrients.

Polyphenols are naturally found in fruits, vegetables, herbs, and many other plants. They are produced as secondary metabolites—small molecules created during energy production in plants—and are considered their own category of micronutrients (1).

 As secondary metabolites, polyphenols have profound biological benefits for those who consume them, boasting benefits to brain, digestive, heart, immune health, and more (1).

 While there is still research to be done to discover all the advantages of polyphenols, the future is looking bright for these robust compounds and the benefits they have to offer your health

TYPES OF POLYPHENOLS YOU SHOULD KNOW

 To date, more than 8,000 types of polyphenols have been identified (2). These types are divided into 4 main groups based on their structure and primary functions within your body.

 FLAVONOIDS

 Flavonoids account for more than half (approximately 60%) of all polyphenols.

 They are known for their richness in antioxidants, stress-fighting ability, and capacity to fend off damage caused by internal and external toxins (3).

 The most distinctive flavonoid-containing foods are dark red-purple colours, including berries, cocoa, and wine.

 Some flavonoids you may be familiar with are: 

  • Flavanols
  • Quercetin
  • Kaempferol
  • Catechins
  • Anthocyanins

 PHENOLIC ACIDS

 Phenolic acids are the second largest subgroup of polyphenols, making up 30% of the total bioactive chemicals found in polyphenol-containing foods (4). They are also known for their antioxidant abilities but also their immunomodulation capacity (4).

 They’re common in high-acid foods, like citrus fruits, kiwi, and mangos. Seeds and grains are also rich in phenolic acids. Specific phenolic acids you may have heard of include:

  • Stilbenes
  • Ferulic acid
  • Lignans
  • Caffeic acid
  • P-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA)

 POLYPHENOLIC AMIDES

 Polyphenolic amides are a group of polyphenols that have a unique chemical structure compared to other phenolic compounds. Foods that contain this unique polyphenol are hot peppers.

 Hot (aka: spicy) peppers, like cayenne and chili, contain the polyphenolic amides known ascapsaicinoids (5). This polyphenol is better known as capsaicin, giving peppers their bright color, spicy taste and health benefits such as anti-inflammation, improved digestion, and immune system support (5).

OTHER TYPES

 Additional phytonutrients exist outside of the above polyphenol types. This is because they have chemical structures and antioxidant functions that are unique to them alone. These include(1):

  • Resveratrol in red wine
  • Ellagic acid in a variety of berries
  • Curcumin in turmeric

TOP 4 HEALTH BENEFITS OF POLYPHENOLS

Polyphenols provide numerous health benefits, mostly thanks to their ability to fight and repair damage caused by toxins.

ANTIOXIDANT PROTECTION

 Most polyphenols, regardless of type, are antioxidant-rich(1).

 Antioxidants protect your body tissues from two kinds of free radicals—reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen oxide species (RNOS). These free radicals can cause damage at the cellular level, attacking yourDNA, RNA, and proteins, impacting tissue formation and function (6).

 This damagefree radicals cause can stimulate the development of chronic diseases and premature aging(6). So subsequently, the antioxidant benefits of polyphenols have also been found to improve your long-term health.

 IMMUNE SYSTEM MODULATION

 In terms of immune health, polyphenols have shown a range of antioxidant-attributed benefits that keep you healthy and protected against internal and external free radical toxins (7). Some of the most critical include:

  • Improves immune response
  • Prevents and eases chronic inflammation
  • Speeds recovery from infection and illness

IMPROVED DIGESTION AND GUT HEALTH

 Polyphenols have also shown promising prebiotic benefits within thegut microbiome—the ecosystem ofbeneficial microorganisms located in your large intestine—meaning they both nourish and boost the growth of microbiota by feeding good gut bacteria (8). These gut bacteria are responsible for digestion and play a role in energy production, sleep quality, immune function, and more.

 Additionally, specific polyphenols help fend off harmful pathogenic bacteria, such asC. difficile, E. Coli, andSalmonella(8).

 AIDS BRAIN FUNCTION

 One of the most well-known benefits of polyphenol compounds is their possible ability to boost brain function, including improved mood, focus, and memory for those with mild mental impairment (9).

 Though more research is needed to determine preciselywhy polyphenols are so beneficial for the brain, promising studies have noted the following benefits (9):

  • Reduces chronic tissue inflammation
  • Improves blood flow
  • Protects neurons from free radical damage

HOW CAN YOU GET MORE POLYPHENOLS INTO YOUR DAY?

 In recent years, research has suggested that increasing your daily polyphenol intake can reduce the occurrence of free radical-associated health conditions (1).

 Current recommendations are not exact, but the majority of current scientific consensus has found that more than 650 mg of polyphenols per day are necessary to attain the most benefits (10).

 Eating more produce and plant-based foods or supplements you eat each day can increase your intake of polyphenols. Excellent foods that contain a wide variety of polyphenol types are(10):

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Herbs and spices
  • Tea
  • Cocoa
  • Honey
  • Plant-based oils

8 POLYPHENOL-PACKED FOODS YOU NEED TO KNOW

To begin reaping the benefits of polyphenols, you have to know what foods you’re even looking for! 

 Here are 8 polyphenol-packed foods to get you started:

  1. BERRIES

 Berries may be tiny, but they are indeed mighty when it comes to their polyphenol content. Certain berries contain over 1,100 mg of polyphenol per 64 g (half cup) serving (10).

 Two of the most notable berries out there are blueberries and goji berries.

 Blueberries contain approximately 560 mg of polyphenols per 64 g (half cup) serving (11). The central compounds found in these impressive berries are anthocyanins, which aid in healthy aging and enhance longevity by protecting cellular DNA from free radical damage.

 Goji berries are another powerful berry, believed to have one of the highest antioxidant ratios per64 g (half cup) serving (12). The main polyphenol compound in goji is calledzeaxanthin, a carotenoid and vitamin A derivative. This compound is essential for good vision health, protecting your eyes from the wear and tear of daily exposure to sunlight.

  1. MATCHA GREEN TEA

The health benefits of matcha green tea are well known and are linked to their high polyphenol content.

A cup of brewed matcha or other green teas can contain between 30 to 60 milligrams of polyphenol derivatives. Primarily flavonoids such ascatechins; however, estimates have suggested that matcha contains up to 137 times the catechins content compared to other types of green tea(13).

The antioxidant properties of the catechins in matcha can benefit your health by(13):

  • Inhibiting oxidative stress-related damage
  • Fighting pathogenic and viral infections
  • Promoting probiotic growth in the microbiome (8)
  • Helping to prevent chronic disease
  1. BEETROOT

 Beetroot, specifically red beetroot, can contain as many as 1,450 mg of polyphenols per serving (14). The most common polyphenols found in red beetroot are the flavonoids calledanthocyaninsandbetalains.

 Both anthocyanins and betalains are pigment compounds as well as antioxidants. These phytochemicals provide red, purple, and blueish pigmentation in fruits and vegetables, including beetroot. But they also can fend away damage caused by free radicals and chronic inflammation that impact immune function and skin health (14).

  1. GINGER ROOT

 Ginger root contains a plethora of unique polyphenols that have made it a popular antioxidant remedy for thousands of years. One of the most potent phytonutrients in ginger isgingerol (15). Gingerol is themain bioactive compound in ginger that gives this herb its signature fragrance and distinctive medicinal properties.

 Polyphenols in ginger, specifically gingerol, are known to aid digestive health by improving digestion and easing digestive upset symptoms, like nausea. They also play a role in enhancing the protective abilities of the immune system by fending away stress and speeding recovery from viral infections (15).

 In addition to gingerol, other phytonutrients in ginger you might want to know are:

  • Shogaols
  • Paradols
  • Quercetin
  • Zingerone
  1. WATER LENTIL

 Also known as duckweedorlemna,water lentils are gaining popularity in the wellness world due to their ability to be sustainably produced and their surprising health benefits when added to your daily diet (16).

 The polyphenols found in this aquatic plant includequercetin, luteolin, and apigenin, which provide a host of benefits that can improve brain health and function, such as nervous cell protection, enhanced cognition, and improved sleep quality (16).

  1. LEAFY GREENS

 Leafy greens are a tried and true option for packing more polyphenols into your day.

 Spinach happens to be a leafy green vegetable with one of the highest phytonutrient contents available, providing approximately 119 mg of polyphenols per 30 g (1 cup) serving (17). The primary polyphenols found in spinach are flavonols, which are particularly good at preserving your long-term eye health and vision (17).

 However, spinach isn’t the only leafy green packed with polyphenols! Here are a few more vegetables you can choose to add to your day:

  • Kale
  • Bok choy
  • Cabbage
  • Collard greens
  • Arugula
  • Swiss Chard
  1. COCOA

 Cocoa is one the most popular foods available with a high polyphenol content—6 to 8% of its dry weight.

 Why wouldn’t it be? Cocoa is delicious!

 Research suggests that flavanols contained in cocoa may benefit brain health. These phytochemicals ease inflammation in blood vessels and arteries, which improves blood flow to the brain. As a result, polyphenols in cocoacan enhance cognitive functions, such as working memory and attention span (18).

  1. TURMERIC ROOT

 Turmeric rootcontains the unique polyphenol compound,curcumin. Curcumin is one of the most potent polyphenols available and has been used as a form ofAyurveda medicine for thousands of years due to itspowerful health benefits. These include balancing metabolism and energy production and easing inflammation associated with pain (i.e., arthritis) and depression symptoms (19).

ARE YOU GETTING ENOUGH DAILY POLYPHENOLS?

Polyphenols are outstanding plant-based chemical compounds known for their antioxidative and regenerative properties. Due to their vast benefits for your overall health, it's essential to ensure you're eating the recommended daily amount of phytonutrients every day. 

 If you are an individual that struggles with getting enough plant-based foods into your day, consider adding supplementary high-quality, polyphenol-packed functional ingredientsto your health routine.

    • Brglez Mojzer, E., Knez Hrnčič, M., et al. (2016). Polyphenols: Extraction Methods, Antioxidative Action, Bioavailability and Anticarcinogenic Effects.
    • Cory, H., Passarelli, S., et al. (2018). The Role of Polyphenols in Human Health and Food Systems: A Mini-Review.
    • Panche, A., Diwan, A., et al. (2016). Flavonoids: an overview.
    • Kumar, N., & Goel, N. (2019). Phenolic acids: Natural versatile molecules with promising therapeutic applications.
    • Hamed, M., Kalita, D., et al. (2019). Capsaicinoids, Polyphenols and Antioxidant Activities ofCapsicum annuum: Comparative Study of the Effect of Ripening Stage and Cooking Methods.
    • Stone, W, Pham T, et al. (2021), Biochemistry, Antioxidants.
    • Ding, S., Jiang, H., et al. (2018). Regulation of Immune Function by Polyphenols.
    • Kumar Singh, A., Cabral, C., et al. (2019). Beneficial Effects of Dietary Polyphenols on Gut Microbiota and Strategies to Improve Delivery Efficiency.
    • Vauzour D. (2012). Dietary polyphenols as modulators of brain functions: biological actions and molecular mechanisms underpinning their beneficial effects.
    • Del Bo', C., Bernardi, S., et al. (2019). Systematic Review on Polyphenol Intake and Health Outcomes: Is there Sufficient Evidence to Define a Health-Promoting Polyphenol-Rich Dietary Pattern?.
    • Wilson, M., Shukitt-Hale, B., et al. (2006). Blueberry polyphenols increase lifespan and thermotolerance in Caenorhabditis elegans.
    • Ma, Z., Zhang, H., et al. (2019). Goji Berries as a Potential Natural Antioxidant Medicine: An Insight into Their Molecular Mechanisms of Action.
    • Chacko, S., Thambi, P., et al. (2010). Beneficial effects of green tea: a literature review.
    • Baião, D., de Freitas, C., et al. (2017). Polyphenols from Root, Tubercles and Grains Cropped in Brazil: Chemical and Nutritional Characterization and Their Effects on Human Health and Diseases.
    • Mao, Q., Xu, X., et al. (2019). Bioactive Compounds and Bioactivities of Ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe).
    • Pagliuso, D., Eusebia Palacios Jara, C., et al. (2020). Flavonoids from duckweeds: potential applications in the human diet.
    • Ko, S., Park, J., et al. (2014). Antioxidant Effects of Spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.) Supplementation in Hyperlipidemic Rats.
    • Field, D., Williams, C., et al. (2011). Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in an acute improvement in visual and cognitive functions.
    • Hewlings, S., & Kalman, D. (2017). Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human Health.

Allison Lansman

Allison (Allie) Lansman, RDN

Allie is a US-based eco-Dietitian who specializes in connecting the dots between nutrition, sustainability, the environment, and equitable human health. She is passionate about creating educational content that is not only research-based, but empowers all eaters to both nourish their bodies and regenerate the health of our planet through the food they eat.

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