The Richest Sources of Dietary Polyphenols Are Not What You Think

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.

The richest sources of dietary polyphenols are not what you think

Image result for cup of coffee

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.

Do you really need fruits and vegetables?

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:

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.

PS: Check out my Supplements Buying Guide for Men.

Bonus: Rogue Hot Chocolate Recipe

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.


Leave a Comment:

Carcass says June 14, 2016

Rogue read my mind. I saw “cup of chocolate” and immediately found myself wondering what your recipe was. Thanks.

Tuba says June 14, 2016

I am not a great champion of “eat your vegetables” and think most modern fruits are just refined ways to deliver sugar. But there other reasons to eat some plant stuff. First is magnesium. It is at the heart of the chlorophyll molecule and is important in some 300 processes. Most Americans are deficient in magnesium. Plant material can also provide chemicals that up- or down-regulate genes which can also affect health. Bacopa monnieri up regulates a gene that then makes a protein that tells the hippocampus to make new memory cells.

Garrett says June 14, 2016

I swear on vegetables:

I have found out that if I eat around 400g of mixed vegetables an hour or two two before training, I can do more work (repetitions) and have more strength – consistently!
Working out becomes “easy”, that is, I can crank out workloads almost effortless that, while working out in a fasted state or having eaten something else before feel much more taxing psychologically.

I mention this here because, at least in me, the effect is so strong and reliable.

Vegetables make me function better, I am certain of it – and I am not so certain about most things.

But – I suffer from a chronic autoimmune liver condition; therefore I may not be the best example;
or, otherwise, I may be an especially good example, because I have a lack of energy and metabolic
capacity, therefore I could be an unusual useful indicator for things that improve performance.

Because the effect is so strong and reliable in me, it would be maybe best if you check for it yourself;
it can be done quickly and cheaply:

You will find in your supermarket in the frozen food section bags of frozen mixed vegetables – just
select a bag that contains the highest variety in vegetables, the product I use includes seven kinds of vegetables:
Brussels sprouts, carrots, peas, beans, leeks , cauliflower and savoy cabbage.
For a quick meal, you throw 400g of it in a microwave dishware (with lid) , add one or two potatoes, and microwave it at 800W for 14 minutes, take it out, let it cool a bit, and add salt and spices (I use pepper and curcuma etc.).
It’s quickly prepared, it is low-calories, it tastes OK, you just have one pot to clean (if you eat from the microwave dishware) and it is cheap. I know no better way to fill my stomach with something healthy,
and I achieve to eat lots of vegetables easily.

And, I just function much better with this food – I feel more awake and energetic, and I sure can
turn out much more while working out. I suggest you try it out soon and maybe report results, if it
works in you like in myself, you should most clearly experience the difference in your workouts.

Much research about nitrate (contained mostly in vegetables in the diet) exists that indicates
significantly better physical performance when this stuff is eaten before exercise,
for example:

I have no idea if it is just and only the nitrate, or if there is more to it, but I sure know this vegetable improves my results most noticeably.

Ole says June 15, 2016

Please take a moment to check this one out:

Terry is advocating for tons of green vegetables, but also organ meat (if you don’t mind the high amount of iron), healthy fats and coloured vegetables and fruits. I find her story very inspiring indeed.

NikFromNYC says June 15, 2016

Your cocoa recipe that lacks teeth friendly erythritol sweetener sounds like robot food and certainly not something you’d get a typical girlfriend to join you for, bitter yuk! I also prefer coconut milk powder to cream since it’s a pantry item with nice taste and I use a Japanese matcha whisk. A base of expresso turns it into a caffeine drink in which the theobromine from the cocoa mellows out the buzz into a body centered one.

Ole says June 15, 2016

Wait a minute, before replacing your green vegetables with beef:

Stuart Mather says August 9, 2016

Do you think gut bacteria (the right species ) can produce butyrate from only polyphenols – without fermentable fiber? Or do they need fermentable fiber as well as polyphenols? In other words, are you saying that without polyphenols , fermentable fibers (prebiotics) are useless for butyrate production.
Particularly wonderng about , for example, breast milk, which is very high in fermentable fiber, but conceivably (depending on whether the mother consumes polyphenol containing foods) has zero phenolic content. The infant consuming that breastmilk will still have plenty of butyrate (from the prebiotics in the breast milk) in their colons won’t they?
Not suggesting phenolics aren’t beneficial of course. Just wondering if they are a prerequisite for having a butyrate factory in your colon.

    P. D. Mangan says August 10, 2016

    As you say, an infant wouldn’t be getting much if any polyphenols, so it probably isn’t a prerequisite.

The Truth About Breakfast - Rogue Health and Fitness says September 18, 2016

[…] Coffee is loaded with polyphenols. […]

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