Polyphenols are plant compounds that are associated with good health.(1)
“Polyphenols are secondary metabolites of plants and are generally involved in defense against ultraviolet radiation or aggression by pathogens. In the last decade, there has been much interest in the potential health benefits of dietary plant polyphenols as antioxidant. Epidemiological studies and associated meta-analyses strongly suggest that long term consumption of diets rich in plant polyphenols offer protection against development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases.”
Consumption of polyphenols is thought to be behind much of the health benefit of vegetable and fruit intake.
As part of my anti-aging program, I try to keep my intake of polyphenols high.
Polyphenols and other plant compounds such as terpenes and alkaloids are thought to work by hormesis. In other words, these compounds represent low-dose toxins, to which the body mounts a defense, strengthening cellular stress-defense mechanisms. The result is akin to lifting weights: the application of a stress causes the body to react by becoming stronger.
The idea that polyphenols are in reality toxic makes perfect sense, since many of them are produced by plants to fend off and poison predators.(2) The bitterness of many of them serves as a warning to insects and other predators of plants that they’re toxic and not to be eaten.
Plants do not want to be eaten, and are incapable of running away, so polyphenols and other phytochemicals for part of their arsenal in chemical warfare against microorganisms, insects, and animals.
It turns out that many fruits and vegetables, especially the latter, are not terribly high in polyphenols. Instead, many of our favorite vice foods, like coffee, tea, red wine, and chocolate, rank quite high on the list, outranking many foods that we usually think of as being healthy — broccoli for instance.
A list of the top 100 foods in polyphenol content, published by the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and ranked by the amount in a typical serving, shows that many vegetables are relatively low in polyphenols.(3)
Berries, such as blackberry, strawberry, and blueberry, are high in polyphenols.
A closer look at the list reveals something odd: coffee is number 6 on the list, and going down the list, we find dark chocolate, cocoa powder, black tea, green tea, and red wine.
All of these are much higher on the list than broccoli, onions, tomatoes, pears, peaches, lettuce, and green peppers.
It looks like my daily habit of coffee, tea, chocolate, and red wine gives me more polyphenols than eating even double the recommended five servings a day of fruits and vegetables.
Throw in some blueberries and/or dark chocolate for dessert after dinner and you’re good to go.
The logic behind these food and drink items having high polyphenol contents is that they are in reality highly concentrated plant products.
A glass of red wine, for instance, requires around 100 grapes to make. A cup of coffee is made from about 70 coffee beans.
If you ate 100 grapes, assuming you could, you’d get an awful lot of sugar with it. Red wine in moderation is healthier than eating grapes for that reason.
The question arises: do you even need to eat fruits and vegetables to get their health benefit? Maybe if you consume the food and drink discussed above, you get all the polyphenols you need.
That then leads to the question whether all the benefits of fruits and vegetables arise from their polyphenol content. Perhaps they provide something else that coffee, etc, do not provide.
That other thing could be fiber, which is largely eliminated from these other products. (Cocoa powder retains the fiber.)
Fiber is fermented in the gut by bacteria, leading to the production of butyrate, which is healthy for the intestinal lining and may be one of the main benefits of fiber.
But polyphenols alone modulate gut bacteria and lead to the production of butyrate.(4)
Furthermore, fiber in and of itself may not be terribly healthy for you. Many of the alleged health benefits of fiber turn out to be poorly supported by science.
As for the vitamin and mineral content of fruits and vegetables, it appears that meat is a whole lot better:
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Include superfoods in your daily diet”. If a “superfood” exists, red meat is one. pic.twitter.com/UcbFA0yxJt
— Michael Joseph (@Nutradvance) May 19, 2016
My stance on the benefits of fiber, and thus of fruits and vegetables: agnostic. I do eat vegetables, but pretty much avoid fruit other than berries because of the sugar content. But I don’t worry about whether I get “enough”, because my intake of polyphenols from my “vices” is so high.
I typically drink a cup of coffee when I get up in the morning, one or two cups of tea and a cup of chocolate during the day, and two glasses of red wine before/with dinner. That amounts to an intake of approximately 1150 mg of polyphenols daily.
I also directly ingest polyphenols from supplements. Curcumin, for instance, is a polyphenol.
Put 1 heaping teaspoon of cocoa powder in a cup, add 6 ounces of water, microwave for 1 minute. Then stir well. Add a good dollop of cream. No sugar. Contains caffeine and theobromine for stimulation, and over 100 mg polyphenols.