Polyphenols are a class of chemicals found naturally in plants, including fruits, veggies, herbs and spices, teas, cocoa, and even wine.
These chemicals are designed to protect plants from threats, like UV radiation and insects. Not surprisingly, they help protect your health as well. This is mainly due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory power.
Can an apple a day really keep the doctor away? How about red wine and chocolate? They might! All three contain compounds called polyphenols — plant compounds with very strong antioxidant properties that are quite beneficial to your health.
So pour that glass of wine and chop up an apple, here’s what polyphenol foods can do for you.
There are hundreds of foods that contain polyphenols in some form. Here are some simple foods to add to your plate to get some polyphenol goodness.
Apples contain a whole bunch of polyphenols (anywhere from 10 to 500 milligrams (mg) of polyphenols in a serving, or 200 grams, to be exact).
These act as strong antioxidants. Epidemiological studies have linked apple consumption with reduced risk of certain cancers, heart disease, asthma, and diabetes.
How to eat ‘em
Eating apples the old fashioned way is best (wash and eat them raw). Processing messes with the polyphenol content so skip the fruit snacks and go for the real thing. It’s especially important to eat the skin to get those polyphenols.
If foods could wear accessories, blueberries would wear a crown. Berries in general are loaded with 200 to 220 mg of hydroxycinnamic acids and 500 mg of anthocyanins (both are types of polyphenols) per 100 grams.
The polyphenols in blueberries can help protect your nervous system from damage. And, they may enhance cognitive functioning and help prevent cardiovascular disease by way of their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Both green and black teas contain about 20 to 160 and 12 to 100 mg of monomeric flavanols, a type of flavonoid polyphenol, respectively in a 200 milliliter (mL) serving, or just under 1 cup.
Green tea is known for its rich epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) content and black tea for its theaflavin content (which both fall under the polyphenol umbrella).
Both are great for heart health and reducing LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind) and triglyceride levels (also bad at high levels). EGCG in particular may help you feel more calm, less fatigued, and even help prevent cancer cell growth and Alzheimer’s disease.
Are you suddenly craving a matcha latte? Tea is pretty simple. Make a hot cuppa or drink it iced.
Beans are a great source of polyphenols. A 200 mg serving contains about 70 to 110 mg of monomeric polyphenols. In addition to being a rich source of nutrients like protein and fiber, they’re packed with antioxidants and may help keep blood sugar levels under control.
How to eat ‘em
Throw some black beans on a salad, make them into a burger, or mash them up into a dip with herbs and spices.
Soybeans are full of isoflavones, a type of flavonoid. A 200 mg serving of soybeans contains about 40 to 180 mg of polyphenols. They’re the compounds that give soy its antioxidant muscle, scavenging free radicals and reducing inflammation (you go, soybeans).
How to eat ‘em
Minimally processed is the way to go here — think edamame, organic tofu, and tempeh to reap the antioxidant benefits of these powerful beans.
Resveratrol (found in red wine) has been shown to be effective in helping manage and prevent diabetes as well as potentially helping to treat cardiovascular disease.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests two drinks or less in a day for men and one drink or less in a day for women. Some research shows that moderate alcohol consumption may help protect against coronary disease and stroke. A 100 mL serving (under half a cup) contains about 20 to 35 mg of polyphenols.
Resveratrol may also be beneficial in the prevention of blood clots by making platelets less likely to stick together and form a clot. Plus, studies show resveratrol can improve HbA1c, a measure of how well-managed blood sugar has been over a period of time.
Note that human studies have been pretty inconsistent with some studies showing improvements while others showed minimal effects. More research is needed to really be sure.
This is not a recommendation to down a bottle of Pinot Noir every night, but a few glasses a week could do your health some good.
This veggie is full of flavonoids like quercetin, which is believed to help prevent certain types of cancer. The Vitalin variety of asparagus, for instance, has about 35 mg in a 100 gram serving.
In animal studies, quercetin (and resveratrol in red wine!) have demonstrated beneficial effects in prevention and delayed progression of lung cancer.
How to eat ‘em
Asparagus comes in different colors like green, white, or purple. But, if you’re looking for the most antioxidant rich variety, it’s green all the way.
Toss asparagus spears in olive oil and grill or roast them until they’re a little bit crispy. You can also add chopped asparagus to omelets or add shaved raw asparagus spears to your summer salad.
EVOO is a staple in the Mediterranean diet, you know the diet that boasts a ton of anti-inflammatory benefits? Well, extra virgin olive oil is part of that claim.
Unlike regular olive oil, EVOO is made of cold-pressed olives (not a mix with processed oils) that helps you reap its natural benefits.
A study comparing EVOO to regular olive oil and corn oil, found its polyphenol content may help reduce “bad” cholesterol levels and has been shown to significantly decrease inflammatory markers.
Virgin olive oil contains about 50 to 1000 mg of polyphenols per kilogram.
Get your oil on
Use it in a salad dressing or toss your veggies in it. And yes, go ahead, dip that bread basket in EVOO in the name of health.
Spinach is packed with powerful antioxidants like vitamins A and C, fiber, and even some protein.
Spinach offers a lot in the health benefits department, but it’s free radical-fighting polyphenols may specifically help to lower cholesterol and battle inflammation throughout the body.
How to eat it
Spinach is versatile and can be used in a variety of ways. You could toss a handful into a smoothie, or an easy way to use it is as a (nutrient rich) salad base.
These nuts are already well-known for their essential fatty acid content, but they’re also rich in a type of polyphenol called ellagitannin.
Ellagitannins have been studied for their potential role to reduce the risk of certain diseases including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Walnuts have very high concentrations of polyphenols, with about 1,591 mg per 100 gram serving.
How to eat ‘em
Eat walnuts like candy (just not always actually candied) or throw them on a salad. Have you tried walnut butter yet?!
If you’re not ready to invest in a jar of the stuff sight untasted, throw some walnuts in a food processor and make your own (that ish is delish 🤤).
What food list would be complete without chocolate? Cocoa is one of the top sources of polyphenols in the food kingdom. Dark chocolate contains about 460 to 610 mg of polyphenols per 50 gram serving.
And, it’s particularly beneficial for your ticker by helping to prevent heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
How to eat ‘em
While it’s true that processing cocoa does reduce its polyphenol content, including small amounts of high quality cocoa and dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao content into your regular routine still offers plenty of disease-fighting power.
Cinnamon is a powerful polyphenol spice that slows down the process of digestion and halts blood sugar spikes.
Studies have shown cinnamon also helps to reduce blood sugar levels in patients with type 2 diabetes.
Foods rich in polyphenols are safe to eat for most people (unless you have an existing allergy or intolerance). Supplements are available that provide polyphenols, but they are a whole different ball game.
Some supplement brands recommend doses 100 times higher than what is typically consumed through foods.
Risks associated with high-dose polyphenol supplements include:
- damage to the liver and kidneys
- inhibiting thyroid function
- acting as anti-nutrients (blocking absorption of important nutrients we need)
- potential medication interactions
- potential carcinogenic effects
Foods rich in polyphenols are fantastic for health and should be included as part of a balanced, healthy diet. The best way to reap the rewards of these nutrition gems is through whole foods, hands down.
There’s no scientific consensus around appropriate dosing for these compounds as of yet, so supplements should be considered with caution.
The supplement industry remains unregulated, and some products may provide excessive amounts of polyphenols, potentially causing harm.
If you’re thinking about trying a polyphenol supplement, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider or pharmacist first.