What do olive oil, dark chocolate, and red wine have in common? They all contain polyphenols (and are totally delicious). You may not hear the term polyphenols commonly, but these antioxidants are quite a boon for your health.
“A polyphenol is essentially a plant compound that provides nutrition benefits, including reducing inflammation and risk of chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and stroke,” explains Stacey Simon, M.S., R.D., C.S.G., C.D.N., registered dietitian and owner of Stacey Simon Nutrition LLC, a virtual nutrition counseling practice based out of New York, New York.
Below, a deep dive on all things polyphenols. Bottoms up on that EVOO and vino!
How Can Polyphenols Help Your Health?
Polyphenols can enhance your well-being in many ways and contribute to longevity. “Research indicates that eating a diet high in polyphenols can help lower the risk of chronic disease,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-based registered dietitian and owner of Master the Media in Stamford, CT.
Echoing Gorin, Simon adds that “consuming polyphenols on a regular basis can reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and other chronic conditions.” Additionally, they can help to reduce chronic inflammation, which can lead to developing the aforementioned diseases.
Beyond chronic conditions, there’s also encouraging research that polyphenols could help in other aspects of your holistic health picture. “Some lesser-known benefits of polyphenols are prevention of blood clots, promotion of healthy gut bacteria, and improved memory and overall cognitive function,” says Kristin Gillespie, M.S., R.D., L.D., advisor for Exercisewithstyle.com
Here’s a look at some of the main ways polyphenols can benefit your health.
1. Cardiovascular Health
One of the biggest health benefits of polyphenols is related to their ability to improve heart health, offers Gillespie. “Studies have shown that polyphenols can help reduce your risk of heart disease; this is a result of their role in reducing chronic inflammation,” she says, adding that they have also been linked to lower blood pressure and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and improved HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, which are directly related to cardiovascular health.
2. Healthy blood sugar Levels
Another health benefit of polyphenols is their involvement in blood sugar levels. Gillespie points out that polyphenols may help improve fasting blood sugar levels, insulin sensitivity, and, as a result, risk of type 2 diabetes. For more on blood glucose level maintenance, check out our article on six health measures that can help prevent diabetes.
3. cancer prevention
Another of the well-known benefits of polyphenols is their role in the prevention of certain types of cancers, including breast, lung, prostate, cervical, and colon cancers. Simon highlights polyphenols’ potential to reduce colorectal cancer risk, in particular, through reducing intestinal inflammation and controlling the intestinal microbe, as per this Frontiers in Immunology study.
4. immune Health
“One benefit of polyphenols that many people are unfamiliar with relates to the complex connection between polyphenols, the gut microbiota, and immunity,” comments Cassie Madsen, M.S., R.D., owner of Madsen Nutrition & Consulting LLC and Guthealthandnutrition.com, citing this research. “Polyphenols provide nutrients to the bacteria in our gut, allowing for a thriving community of microbes that is beneficial for human health. The microbes break these polyphenols into compounds that humans can better absorb. Many of these compounds produced from polyphenols help with immunity by protecting against bacterial and viral infections,” she continues. Without gut bacteria, some benefits of polyphenols would be lost, Gorin emphasizes.
Where can you find polyphenols?
Polyphenols are primarily present in plant-based foods like veggies, fruits, cereals, and certain beverages like orange juice and green tea. It’s worth noting that there are more than 8,000 polyphenolic compounds out there, the most common group of polyphenols being flavonoids, says Gorin. Here are a few top picks.
One 2018 scientific review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences on the potential health advantages of olive oil and plant polyphenols concluded that “an increase in consumption of virgin olive oil and other plant products rich in polyphenolic compounds, specifically in populations with low olive oil intake, does seem to be rational and provides diverse health benefits.”
Not all olive oils, however, are created equal. “You can taste the difference [in olive oils with low and high polyphenol counts],” explains Marisa Bloch Gaytan, Level 2 olive oil sommelier and master blender for Pasolivo, a California-grown olive oil company. “The higher the polyphenol count, the more bitterness and pungency you will pick up in the oil. The lower the polyphenol count, the more buttery and mild the oil will taste.”
Bloch Gaytan says another way to know that an olive oil has a high polyphenol count is to buy those certified as extra virgin. “Typically, all certified oils will naturally have a high polyphenol count due to the process,” she says. “But oils that are labeled extra virgin are not necessarily certified extra virgin. Some producers choose to put the seal of certification on the bottle itself, while others leave it off the bottle.” To be sure, you can reference the California Olive Oil Council and the International Olive Oil Council websites for a list of certified oils. Some producers, like Pasolivo, list the polyphenol counts of various olive oil products on their websites, as well.
To up your polyphenol intake, Simon advises increasing your berry intake (“frozen berries are a cost-effective option!”). You can try blackberries, wild blueberries, and raspberries, to name a few.
“Berries are also a great source of fiber and vitamin C,” she says. One bowl of oatmeal topped with antioxidant powerhouses, coming right up!
Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
Simon says a list of her favorite polyphenol sources wouldn’t be complete without mentioning cocoa powder. “Cocoa is a rich antioxidant and a delicious addition to a diet rich in polyphenols,” she explains. “Enjoy a dark chocolate for higher antioxidant power; the higher the percentage, the darker the chocolate.”
Gorin, too, is aboard the unsweetened cocoa powder bandwagon. “It contains flavonoids, a type of polyphenol, which may benefit cognitive health,” she says. “In one study in Journal of Nutrition, older adults who ate flavonoid-rich foods including chocolate, wine, or tea scored better on cognitive tests.” Which reminds us, wine and chocolate make an exceptional pairing!
“This spice boasts the polyphenol curcumin, which may help heart and joint health,” says Gorin. “You get the biggest benefit from curcumin when you combine it with black pepper, which contains piperine. The piperine and curcumin work in synergy,” she adds, noting that she likes to add both spices to a creamy cauliflower soup.
You can also take your turmeric in tea form, like Numi Tea’s Organic Turmeric Golden Tonic Tea with Lemon Verbena & Lime. “I love drinking ginger turmeric tea, green tea, and black tea for polyphenols too,” adds Simon.
Along with turmeric, Simon shares that spices like cloves and oregano are also great sources of polyphenols. “Experimenting with new herbs and spices in cooking can create exciting new flavors and reduce the need for added sodium.”
“There are many types of polyphenols, and one is hesperidin,” says Gorin. “When you drink 100 percent orange juice, you take in hesperidin. This may benefit brain health by decreasing inflammation and maintaining blood flow to the inner parts of your brain.”