Polyphenols are a diverse class of molecules containing multiple phenol rings. They are synthesized in large amounts by plants, certain fungi and a few animals, and serve many purposes, including defense against predators/infections, defense against sunlight damage and chemical oxidation, and coloration. The color of many fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, eggplants, red potatoes and apples comes from polyphenols. Some familiar classes of polyphenols in the diet-health literature are flavonoids, isoflavonoids, anthocyanidins, and lignins.
The Case Against Polyphenols
Mainstream diet-health authorities seem pretty well convinced that dietary polyphenols are an important part of good health, due to their supposed antioxidant properties. In the past, I've been critical of the hypothesis. There are several reasons for it:
- Polyphenols are often, but not always, defensive compounds that interfere with digestive processes, which is why they often taste bitter and/or astringent. Plant-eating animals including humans have evolved defensive strategies against polyphenol-rich foods, such as polyphenol-binding proteins in saliva (1).
- Ingested polyphenols are poorly absorbed (2). The concentration in blood is low, and the concentration inside cells is probably considerably lower*. In contrast, essential antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins E and C are efficiently absorbed rather than excluded from the circulation.
- Polyphenols that manage to cross the gut barrier are rapidly degraded by the liver, just like a variety of other foreign molecules, again suggesting that the body doesn't want them hanging around (2).
- The most visible hypothesis of how polyphenols influence health is the idea that they are antioxidants, protecting against the ravages of reactive oxygen species. While many polyphenols are effective antioxidants at high concentrations in a test tube, I don't find it very plausible that the low and transient blood concentration of polyphenols achieved by eating polyphenol-rich foods makes a meaningful contribution to that person's overall antioxidant status, when compared to the relatively high concentrations of other antioxidants in blood (uric acid; vitamins C, E; ubiquinone) and particularly inside cells (SOD1/2, catalase, glutathione reductase, thioredoxin reductase, paraoxonase 1, etc.).
- There are a number of studies showing that the antioxidant capacity of the blood increases after eating polyphenol-rich foods. These are often confounded by the fact that fructose (in fruit and some vegetables) and caffeine (in tea and coffee) can increase the blood level of uric acid, the blood's main water-soluble antioxidant. Drinking sugar water has the same effect (2).
- Rodent studies showing that polyphenols improve health typically use massive doses that exceed what a person could consume eating food, and do not account for the possibility that the rodents may have been calorie restricted because their food tastes horrible.
After reading more about polyphenols, and coming to understand that the prevailing hypothesis of why they work makes no sense, I decided that the whole thing is probably bunk: at best, specific polyphenols are protective in rodents at unnaturally high doses due to some drug-like effect. But-- I kept my finger on the pulse of the field just in case, and I began to notice that more sophisticated studies were emerging almost weekly that seemed to confirm that realistic amounts of certain polyphenol-rich foods (not just massive quantities of polyphenol extract) have protective effects against a variety of health problems. There are many such studies, and I won't attempt to review them comprehensively, but here are a few I've come across:
- Dr. David Grassi and colleagues showed that polyphenol-rich chocolate lowers blood pressure, improves insulin sensitivity and lowers LDL cholesterol in hypertensive and insulin resistant volunteers when compared with white chocolate (3). Although dark chocolate is also probably richer in magnesium, copper and other nutrients than white chocolate, the study is still intriguing.
- Dr. Christine Morand and colleagues showed that drinking orange juice every day lowers blood pressure and increases vascular reactivity in overweight volunteers, an effect that they were able to specifically attribute to the polyphenol hesperidin (4).
- Dr. F. Natella and colleagues showed that red wine prevents the increase in oxidized blood lipids (fats) that occurs after consuming a meal high in oxidized and potentially oxidizable fats (5).
- Several studies have shown that hibiscus tea lowers blood pressure in people with hypertension when consumed regularly (6, 7, 8). It also happens to be delicious.
- Dr. Arpita Basu and colleagues showed that blueberries lower blood pressure and oxidized LDL in men and women with metabolic syndrome (9).
- Animal studies have generally shown similar results. Dr. Xianli Wu and colleagues showed the blueberries potently inhibit atherosclerosis (hardening and thickening of the arteries that can lead to a heart attack) in a susceptible strain of mice (10). This effect was associated with a higher expression level of antioxidant enzymes in the vessel walls and other tissues.
In the face of this accumulating evidence, I've had to reconsider my position on polyphenols. In the process, and through conversations with knowledgeable researchers in the polyphenol field, I encountered a different hypothesis that puts the puzzle pieces together nicely.
* Serum levels briefly enter the mid nM to low uM range, depending on the food (2). Compare that with the main serum antioxidants: ~200 uM for uric acid, ~100 uM for vitamin C, ~30 uM for vitamin E.