Plant Power

Lit­tle- known polyphe­nols of­fer a wealth of health ben­e­fits.

Better Nutrition - - CONTENTS - BY VERA TWEED

There are a lot of diff er­ent in­gre­di­ents in sup­ple­ments, and not all of them are as fa­mil­iar as the ba­sic vi­ta­mins and min­er­als. So, when you see “polyphe­nols,” you might won­der, “Polly who?”

While the name might not be fa­mil­iar, your diet is likely full of polyphe­nols, es­pe­cially if you eat lots of fruits and veg­eta­bles, sea­son your food with herbs and spices, and drink tea, coff ee, and/ or red wine. Pro­nounced “polly FEEnols,” they’re nu­tri­ents that plants make to pro­tect them­selves from ul­tra­vi­o­let ra­di­a­tion and pathogens. And they can pro­tect us too. Stud­ies show that polyphe­nols are an­tiox­i­dants that re­duce the risk of di­a­betes, heart dis­ease, can­cer, and neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkin­son’s.

Types of Polyphe­nols

Sci­en­tists are con­tin­u­ally learn­ing more about the var­i­ous nat­u­ral sub­stances found in food. So far, it’s known that there are about 8,000 diff er­ent polyphe­nols, and the great­est benefi ts come from a com­bi­na­tion, rather than any sin­gle one. That fact alone is a great rea­son to eat a va­ri­ety of plant foods. How­ever, know­ing a bit more about what diff er­ent polyphe­nols can do just might in­spire you to ex­pand your plant menu and spice cup­board even more.

While list­ing ev­ery known polyphe­nol would take a text­book heavy enough to be a doorstop, th­ese are the four main classes and some of their ma­jor food sources:

Flavonoids or Bioflavonoids

Used in­ter­change­ably, th­ese terms de­scribe a class of polyphe­nols that’s di­vided fur­ther into cat­e­gories. Sup­ple­ment la­bels may in­clude any of th­ese:

Flavonols pro­tect plants against dam­age from ul­tra­vi­o­let rays, and peo­ple against poor cir­cu­la­tion and el­e­vated choles­terol. Top sources are the skins of fruits and veg­eta­bles. Flavones help to re­lax blood ves­sels. Yel­low and green fruits and veg­eta­bles are top sources. Fla­vanones are found in cit­rus fruits, such as or­anges and lemons. They work with vi­ta­min C and are anti- infl am­ma­tory and good for the heart. Fla­vanols, aka cat­e­chins, may help to pro­tect against de­men­tia. Top sources in­clude plums, prunes, berries, and black tea. Quercetin, found in as­para­gus, is a type of fl avonol avail­able in sup­ple­ments for hay fever, hives, asthma, and eczema. Isofl avones help to bal­ance hor­mones, es­pe­cially in the time lead­ing up to menopause. Soy foods are ma­jor sources, and they are also found in sup­ple­ments made from soy or red clover. An­tho­cyanins may help to lower risk of heart dis­ease, stroke, and can­cer. They’re found in red, blue, and pur­ple plant foods.


Found in small quan­ti­ties in food, the two best- known stil­benes are resver­a­trol, found in grape skins, red wine, peanuts,

blue­ber­ries, and cran­ber­ries, and pteros­til­bene, found in blue­ber­ries and grapes. Both are avail­able in sup­ple­ments. Stud­ies have found that both are good for the heart and help pro­tect against can­cer. Al­though their ben­e­fits are sim­i­lar, each one works in a unique way in the hu­man body.


Flaxseed is the rich­est source of lig­nans, fol­lowed by se­same seeds. But they’re also found in other seeds, grains, and fruits and veg­eta­bles. Lig­nans help bal­ance hor­mones and lower chronic in­flam­ma­tion, blood pres­sure, and el­e­vated choles­terol.

Pheno­lic acids

Found in onions, radishes, olives and olive oil, berries, co­coa, flaxseed, chest­nut, sage, and rose­mary, pheno­lic acids pro­tect against coro­nary artery dis­ease, stroke, and can­cers.

Top Polyphe­nol Foods

In any given plant food, na­ture com­bines polyphe­nols in a unique way. When to­tal amounts of polyphe­nols of any type are mea­sured, herbs and spices rank high­est, namely cloves, dried pep­per­mint, and star anise. Co­coa pow­der is an­other top source.

Pomegranate juice is a pop­u­lar source of an­tiox­i­dants. While its to­tal polyphe­nol con­tent is com­pa­ra­ble to other juices, it con­tains a unique polyphe­nol not found in other foods, called puni­cala­gin, as well as more than a dozen oth­ers.

Polyphe­nol con­tent alone shouldn’t be the cri­te­rion for choos­ing plant foods— va­ri­ety is the name of the game. While polyphe­nols are a ben­e­fi­cial part of a healthy diet, an over­load may in­ter­fere with thy­roid func­tion or iron ab­sorp­tion.

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