Polyphenols might be one of those intriguing buzzwords you frequently read on health food labels. You add them to cart because they sound like something you should be incorporating into your diet but you’re not quite sure why. But...what exactly do they do for you?
Karen Ansel, R.D.N., author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging: Stay Younger, Live Longer, says polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidant chemicals found naturally in many plants, are instrumental in protecting our cells from free radical damage, which are often attributed to chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease and dementia. They’re linked to longevity, too: A 2013 study published in the Journal of Nutrition found a link between high polyphenol consumption and a 30 percent decrease in mortality in elderly adults.
Want to live long and prosper? Simply eat a plant-heavy diet, which ups your polyphenol ante significantly. You know you should be getting your five to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but Ansel suggests distributing your plant consumption evenly across every meal, rather than having a green juice for breakfast and calling it a day. “Keep in mind that some polyphenols don’t survive all that long in the body. Eating polyphenol-rich foods at every meal and snack provides the biggest bang by delivering a steady stream to your body all throughout the day,” she says.
But because polyphenols aren’t as essential to survival as, say, minerals, there’s no prescribed daily recommended intake. Lifestyle factors, however, can act as a guide. If you smoke or live in a heavily polluted area, Ansel says you need them even more “to help your body quash and protect against the additional free radicals that are attacking your cells.”
You may be tempted to find out the exact polyphenol count in any given food, but that might prove to be fruitless. “Some types of polyphenols aren’t well absorbed or don’t survive well in the body,” Ansel says, “so just because a food is polyphenol-rich, it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily benefit from its polyphenols." She adds that many foods have complex mixtures of different kinds of polyphenols, making it impossible to tease out their impact on the body. Sun exposure, storage, cooking methods and ripeness can all affect their count, too.
Related: Seven Superfoods To Boost Your Health
Related: Seven Superfoods To Boost Your Health
Over 8,000 different types of polyphenols have been identified, so you probably won’t see that exact term floating around your grocery store on each bottle of pomegranate juice. Instead, watch out for labels that include subclasses of polyphenols like flavonoids, flavonols, and isoflavones.
While the FDA has recently amended regulations to ensure labels accurately represent polyphenol content, your best bet is to opt for fresh produce that also offers plenty of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Here, the top foods—besides berries!—you should be eating to fill your polyphenol fix that are equal parts delicious and readily available in your grocery store and your pantry.
Keep the skin on your apples to get five times the polyphenols than you would just eating the flesh. As for polyphenol-rich varieties, one study found Red Delicious contains twice the polyphenols than the Empire variety.
This fragrant, spicy seasoning contains the highest polyphenol content of any food, according to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Try them in mulled wine or baked goods for an antioxidant boost.
Red onions are more polyphenol-potent than yellow varieties, according to research. For both, polyphenol content increases the closest to the outer layer you get.
While tea has long been touted as practically a pharmacy in a cup, opt for green tea over black for maximum antioxidant benefits, according to a 2010 review.
You could be doing yourself a huge favor by indulging in your daily Starbucks run, but stay away from added sugar and non-dairy creamer, which have been found to negatively impact coffee’s polyphenol absorption, according to a study in the Journal of Nutrition. Milk, however, is in the clear.
Citrus fruits are overall great sources of polyphenols, but the sweet orange’s peel packs the highest amount of all its citrus siblings. Add some actual zest to your desserts to see the benefits, according to this 2016 review.
Note: You’re better off opting for soy in its original bean form (hello, edamame) rather than soy milk for the highest possible polyphenol count—research has found that processing the soy can strip out the polyphenols.
Darker cherries aren’t only sweeter, but they’re higher in polyphenols, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Agricultural Sciences.
Resveratrol is happy hour’s disease-fighting star. However, this shouldn't give you carte blanche to drink what you want—most studies emphasize that benefits only come with moderate alcohol consumption.
The polyphenols in cocoa can help with inflammation, heart disease, and cancer, according to this 2010 review. However, beware of the high sugar content found in some bars of chocolate.