What Are Polyphenols?

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When you hear about health benefits associated with guilty pleasures such as dark chocolate and wine, chances are you can thank polyphenols. The group includes thousands of phytochemicals, or substances naturally produced by plants. Because any one individual polyphenol may carry several labels, it’s hard to keep track of them, so remember this important point: They’re antioxidants that offer several health benefits.

Short Course on Polyphenols

The “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” describes polyphenols as abundant micronutrients, which still doesn't quite reflect the fact that more than 8,000 have been identified. They fill a variety of roles in plants, such as protection from infections and ultraviolet radiation, according to a May 2013 report in “Antioxidants and Redox Signaling.” They also add color, flavor and scent to fruits and vegetables. Polyphenols are categorized into four large classes, but the two most common groups in your diet are flavonoids and phenolic acids.

Benefits of Polyphenols

In their role as antioxidants, polyphenols help prevent cardiovascular disease by lowering inflammation and keeping your arteries healthy, according to research summarized in the March 2012 issue of “Therapeutic Advances in Chronic Disease.” As they neutralize reactive molecules called free radicals, polyphenols protect genetic material in your DNA from damage, which may lower the risk of cancer, reports the American Cancer Society. Some polyphenols mimic the action of estrogen, which may protect you from breast and prostate cancer. Polyphenols also positively influence your health by regulating cellular activity, reports a review in the January 2014 issue of “Redox Biology.”

Top Food Sources

Some of the top sources of polyphenols are elderberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, black grapes and sweet cherries, according to a list published in November 2010 in the "European Journal of Clinical Nutrition." The best choices for vegetables are onions, spinach, broccoli, carrots, red lettuce, artichokes and asparagus. The list includes dark chocolate, coffee, red wine and black and green tea. You’ll also get polyphenols from whole grains and nuts such as walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans and almonds. Many common spices are good sources, but only in serving sizes too large to be a realistic part of your diet.

Amount to Eat

A daily requirement for polyphenols has not been established, but there are two ways to be sure you consume the optimal amount. First, eat enough fruits and vegetables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends consuming 1.5 to 2 cups of fruits and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables every day. Then make sure your diet includes fruits and vegetables from the entire range of colors. Because each polyphenol imparts a specific color, you'll gain the maximum mix of phytochemicals by consuming foods with a variety of colors.

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