What Are Polyphenols?

With so many “natural” branded foods on the shelves these days, it can be somewhat difficult to weed out the decent foods from the junk posing as healthy food.

But, I have some good news to that end. Some of the very best foods for you do not need to be branded as “natural,” and the things that make these foods aesthetically pleasing (in this case, giving them their color) also make them good for you.

The “things” in question are polyphenols, which are found in all fruits, vegetables, legumes, and seeds (this includes chocolate).

What Are Polyphenols?

what are polyphenols

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1. Polyphenols Prevent Degenerative Diseases

Polyphenols are antioxidants. This means they assist in addressing and reversing the problems caused by oxidative stress to the walls of arteries (the problems themselves which are caused by activities like overeating), create a heart-healthy environment by curbing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol (which stops the potential for atherosclerosis), and they help relieve chronic pain, as seen in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, due to their anti-inflammatory properties.

It’s thought there are about 8,000 polyphenols. However, not all of them have these particular properties. This is why your source of polyphenols is important.

2. The Source Of Polyphenols Is Important

It should be noted that scientific understanding of the effects of polyphenols on the human body is in its infancy.

This is mostly due to the difficulty in isolating particular polyphenols for use in controlled trials. But, new evidence for the efficacy of polyphenols in healthy living is being found all the time.

The only question, then, is what are the “best” polyphenols and their highest aggregate sources?

As for the best, many are known to have explicit health benefits. You may have seen news reports on resveratrol, a polyphenol in dark fruits and wine, which seems to have the ability to mimic the effects of caloric restriction, slowing aging and negative cardiovascular events.

Then, there’s the polyphenol quercetin from green tea and citrus fruits, which is known to alleviate allergies and asthma.

So, where can you find these polyphenols? Well, a list has been put together, called the ORAC value list. This is a guideline to gauge the level of antioxidants in a food.

As you can see by clicking the link, unsweetened cocoa is high on the list. Also high on the list are dark berries like blueberries, and beans like the pinto bean.

Again, the ORAC list is a guideline, as the bioavailibility (big science-y word for amount of nutrient absorbed) of polyphenols is thought to be much less than the amount in a food, due to processes like digestion.

There is also evidence that the body rejects polyphenols, specifically a sub-branch called flavonoids, which may mean polyphenols act as a catalyst rather than the cause for the aforementioned health benefits. Regardless, polyphenols do garner these beneficial effects.

Also, fresh fruits and vegetables are the best sources of polyphenols and nutrients.

3. Beware: Polyphenols Can Be Used As Commercial Selling-Points

I have mentioned that chocolate is high in polyphenols (catechins, to be precise), so you may see a sugared chocolate bar on the shelf claiming to have health benefits from those polyphenols.

However, not only is the cocoa content of most commercial chocolate bars under 30%, but the processing of commercial chocolate degrades polyphenol content, and the sugar contained within your garden variety bar surely negates the good any remaining polyphenols can do.

The point I’m making is that you shouldn’t trust packaged foods to deliver the vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols you need. Instead, you should reach for those food items that have the least human tampering, for the very best in all of those goodies.

Your Call To Action…

While this post is just a tip of the hat to the complexities of the polyphenol world, I hope it has a place in your decision to get out there and buy some fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as teas.

Polyphenols have many health improving abilities, as stated above, and although it has been mentioned that polyphenols are weakened by the digestive system, studies have found them in urine and stool samples.

Since we know that polyphenols reduce oxidant stress, and thus make the body feel less of the effect from higher-calorie meals, I think it’s safe to say eating a larger amount of fruits, vegetables, and polyphenol-rich legumes to make up for any degradation is just fine. In fact, the more, the merrier!

What will you start doing today to make sure you are getting enough polyphenols into your body?

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About Kiko Rex
Kiko Rex is the self-proclaimed "Editor-in-King" of the healthy eating website, Dehydrogenated.net. There, he tackles all manner of food issues, aiming to learn and thereby teach the way to optimal health (and tastiness!) through eating. Happen by his site, traveler, or like it on FB to keep up with "Der Rex's" antics!


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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie April 25, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Thanks for sharing this article, Kiko :)

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Kiko Rex April 25, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Pleasure’s mine!

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Cathy in NZ April 26, 2012 at 4:20 am

thanks

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Tom Parker May 1, 2012 at 4:26 am

Great post Kiko. Polyphenols are definitely a welcome addition to our diets but we do need to be wary if they are being used as a commercial selling point. I think red wine and resveratrol is one of the best examples of this. Many people drink lots of red wine, thinking that the extra resveratrol is doing them lots of good and ignoring the fact that the extra alcohol is causing them harm. In this situation, eating more red grapes would be a much better choice.

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Kiko Rex May 1, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Amen!

The whole resveratrol craze really is that; crazy! The bioavailability of resveratrol is low enough in wine that it’s almost not even worth it; and you’re right, the alcohol content really kills it. I agree with you on grapes and blueberries, dark berries in general, with maybe a dab of wine here and there.

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Melanie May 2, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Agreed Tom. The other day I had someone say to me “sure chocolate is good for you.” They had been listening to a piece about it on the radio, however the broadcast had failed to state what type of chocolate.

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hormigon impreso alicante May 11, 2013 at 11:44 pm

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Sheila Baker June 9, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Hi Melanie,

Great website :)

I knew nothing about flavonoids, polyphenols, etc until 5 years ago when I was introduced to Xocai products…the only cold-pressed chocolate that is Brunswick Lab certified. On the box you will actually see the number of flavonoids in the finished product. I’m a dentist who no longer practices. I now want to share with the world that there really is a healthy chocolate that you can eat guilt-free and is good for you. Just wanted to let you know about this. It is available in the UK. The business model is referral based marketng.

Sheila

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