Why You Need Antioxidants & Polyphenols

You know by now that antioxidants and polyphenols are generally a good thing. But what do these long and intimidating words really mean, how do you get them, and what do they do for you?   

Let’s start by breaking down how antioxidants and polyphenols are related. Antioxidants are a large category of beneficial compounds that inhibit oxidation. This is a good thing, because oxidation is a chemical reaction that damages the cells of organisms and produces free radicals. Polyphenols are simply a very powerful type of antioxidant. OK, now that we’ve cleared that up …

Why We Need Antioxidants

The reason we need antioxidants to help tame oxidation is because free radicals are a byproduct of oxidation. While we can’t prevent all free radicals from occurring (and low levels of free radicals actually provide important signaling to the rest of your body), it’s when those levels of free radicals become too high or exist for too long in the body that harm and disease follows. High levels of free radicals are linked to diabetes, heart disease, inflammation, and cancers. Without antioxidants, free radicals would cause serious harm very quickly, eventually resulting in death.

Your body has its own antioxidant defenses to help keep free radicals at low levels. And you can also get antioxidants from the foods you eat. And research shows that eating a diet full of antioxidant-rich foods can increase your blood levels of antioxidants. 

Foods High in Antioxidants

The most common way to test if a food contains antioxidants is by FRAP analysis. FRAP stands for Ferric Reducing Ability of Plasma and it measures the antioxidant content in foods by how well that food can neutralize a specific free radical. The following categories of foods contain the highest amounts of antioxidants:  

  • Berries - blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, aronia berries, and goji berries have the highest amounts
  • Dark leafy greens - kale and spinach  
  • Vegetables - all veggies contain antioxidants, with beets, artichokes, asparagus, avocado, radishes, and red cabbage ranking very high
  • Beans - as a category, beans and legumes are very high in antioxidants
  • Nuts - nuts are a great source of antioxidants, with pecans and hazelnuts containing the most. Walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds, cashews, and macadamia nuts are good choices, too
  • Spices and herbs - cinnamon, oregano, turmeric, cumin, parsley, basil, curry powder, mustard seed, ginger, black pepper, chili powder and so many more spices and herbs are concentrated sources of flavor and antioxidants
  • Fruits - in addition to berries, apples, plums, grapes, citrus, and cherries are high antioxidant choices 
  • Dried fruits - think figs, prunes, and raisins, as well as dried apples and pears
  • Others - coffee, green tea, red wine, and dark chocolate (cacao) are beverages that contain a moderate to high amount of antioxidants

Why We Need Polyphenols

Though polyphenols are only one type of antioxidant, we often hear about polyphenols and their health benefits because they have so many good points. There are five main types of non-enzymatic antioxidants, and they are: 

  • Minerals - iodine, magnesium, copper, selenium, and zinc are all minerals that have antioxidant capabilities 
  • Vitamins - vitamins A, E, and C are strong antioxidants
  • Carotenoids - these are plant pigments, such as lycopene, with antioxidant powers
  • Polyphenols - there are several types of polyphenols, including flavonoids, gingerol, polyphenolic acid, and curcumin
  • Other types - this category includes proteins like albumin and transferrin, as well as non-proteins like ubiquinol and uric acid
More than 8,000 polyphenols have been identified, and various polyphenols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. As a category, polyphenols have most often been connected to having a positive effect on:
  • Cardiovascular health - Flavonoid-rich foods have been associated with improved ventricular health, reduced platelet activity, and lower blood pressure. Flavonoids and resveratrol may block cholesterol oxidation to reduce LDL and lower risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Inflammation - phenolic compounds may prevent systemic and/or localized inflammation by restoring the redox balance to reduce oxidative stress
  • Cancer - Flavonoids such as anthocyanins, catechins, flavanols, flavones, flavanones, and isoflavones, may neutralize free radicals and decrease cancer risk by slowing and stopping cellular growth in tumors. Specific types of cancers with evidence of beneficial effects from polyphenols include colon, prostate, epithelial, endometrial, and breast cancer
  • Neurodegenerative disease - Curcumin, resveratrol, and catechins (like EGCG) may protect against Alzheimer's-like diseases and dementia through antioxidant and immunomodulatory and scavenging properties that protect neurons and inhibition of the neurotoxic effects of the beta-amyloid protein, the accumulation of which is linked to Alzheimer's disease. The iron-chelating effects of EGCG, curcumin, myricetin, ginsenosides, and ginkgetin are thought to be an underlying mechanism through which polyphenols prevent neurotoxicity, leading to a neuroprotective effect against neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease, and Huntington's Disease 

Source: The Role of Polyphenols in Human Health and Food Systems: A Mini-Review

Foods High in Polyphenols

A growing body of research indicates that polyphenol consumption may play a vital role in health through the regulation of metabolism, weight, chronic disease, and cell proliferation. 

The foods that are highest in polyphenols mimic the same categories as above (berries, nuts, spices, etc) of foods that are high in antioxidants. Some food choices that are particularly high in polyphenols are the following (all numbers listed in milligrams (mg) of polyphenols per 100 grams (g) of food, which is roughly 3.5 ounces).

  • Cloves - extremely high in polyphenols, cloves have 15,188 mg polyphenols per 100 grams (but remember that 100 grams of cloves is quite a bit)
  • Dried peppermint - 11,960 mg polyphenols
  • Star anise - 5,460 mg polyphenols
  • Cocoa powder - 3,448 mg polyphenols
  • Dark chocolate - 1,664 mg polyphenols
  • Black currants - 758 mg polyphenols
  • Wild blueberries - 560 mg polyphenols
  • Hazelnuts - 495 mg polyphenols
  • Pecans - 493 mg polyphenols 
  • Soy flour - 466 mg polyphenols

Getting a mix of different types of antioxidants is a great way to stay healthy and give your body’s own defenses against free radicals a boost. One easy way to do so? Grab a jar of Otamot, which is packed full of antioxidant-rich plant-based foods to help you stay healthy with every delicious bite. 

Jessie Shafer is a registered dietitian-nutritionist, team member at The Real Food Dietitians, former magazine editor, and busy mom of two who needs all the antioxidants she can get.

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