Health benefits of polyphenols

Polyphenols are a group of naturally occurring compounds found in plants, including fruits, vegetables, tea, red wine, and olive oil. Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), is known for its high polyphenol content, and these compounds contribute to the health benefits associated with its consumption. Here are some reasons why polyphenols in olive oil are considered healthy:

  1. Antioxidant Properties: Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants that help neutralize free radicals in the body. Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons that can cause oxidative stress, which is linked to various chronic diseases and aging. Antioxidants, including polyphenols, help protect cells from oxidative damage.
  2. Anti-Inflammatory Effects: Chronic inflammation is a key factor in the development of many diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative disorders. Polyphenols in olive oil have anti-inflammatory properties, helping to reduce inflammation and its associated risks.
  3. Cardiovascular Health: Olive oil has been associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases. Polyphenols in olive oil contribute to this protective effect by improving blood vessel function, reducing blood pressure, and preventing the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol—factors that can contribute to heart disease.
  4. Cancer Prevention: Some studies suggest that polyphenols, particularly those in extra virgin olive oil, may have anti-cancer properties. They may help inhibit the growth of cancer cells and reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.
  5. Neuroprotective Effects: Polyphenols have been investigated for their potential neuroprotective effects, which may help reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. These compounds may help protect nerve cells from damage and improve cognitive function.
  6. Blood Sugar Regulation: Polyphenols in olive oil may play a role in regulating blood sugar levels. This can be beneficial for individuals with or at risk of type 2 diabetes

It's important to note that the health benefits of polyphenols depend on various factors, including the type of polyphenols present, their concentration in the olive oil, and an individual's overall diet and lifestyle. Choosing extra virgin olive oil, which undergoes minimal processing and retains more of its natural compounds, can provide a higher concentration of polyphenols compared to refined olive oils. As with any dietary component, moderation and a balanced diet are key to obtaining optimal health benefits.


Sources of polyphenols

Several foods are rich in polyphenols, and including a variety of these in your diet can contribute to health benefits. Here are some food products with high concentrations of polyphenols:

  1. Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries are excellent sources of polyphenols, including anthocyanins, flavonols, and ellagic acid.

  2. Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate, particularly varieties with high cocoa content, is rich in flavonoids and other polyphenols. Look for chocolate with at least 70% cocoa content for maximum benefits.

  3. Red Grapes: Grapes, especially red and purple varieties, contain polyphenols like resveratrol. Red wine, made from red grapes, also contains these compounds, but it's important to consume alcohol in moderation.

  4. Apples: Apples, especially their skins, contain various polyphenols, including quercetin.

  5. Citrus Fruits: Oranges, lemons, grapefruits, and other citrus fruits contain flavonoids, such as hesperidin and naringenin.

  6. Tea: Green tea, black tea, and white tea are rich in polyphenols, particularly catechins. Green tea, in particular, is known for its high antioxidant content.

  7. Olive Oil: Extra virgin olive oil is a key component of the Mediterranean diet and is rich in polyphenols, including hydroxytyrosol.

  8. Nuts: Certain nuts, such as walnuts, pecans, and almonds, contain polyphenols. Walnuts, in particular, are known for their high antioxidant content.

  9. Spices and Herbs: Many herbs and spices are rich in polyphenols. Examples include cloves, cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, and turmeric.

  10. Onions: Onions, especially red onions, contain quercetin, a type of flavonoid.

  11. Legumes: Beans, lentils, and chickpeas are good sources of polyphenols.

  12. Flaxseeds: Flaxseeds contain lignans, a type of polyphenol that has antioxidant properties.

For more information about the subject, please read an interesting interview of nutritionist Tim Spector, click here.

Which olive oils contain the highest polyphenol levels?

The polyphenol content in olive oil can vary based on factors such as olive variety, ripeness at harvest, growing conditions, and the processing methods used to extract the oil. However, certain olive varieties are known for having relatively high levels of polyphenols. Here are a few olive varieties that are recognised for their potential to produce olive oil with a high proportion of polyphenols:

  1. Coratina: This is an Italian olive variety typical of Apulia known for producing robust and peppery extra virgin olive oils. Coratina olives are rich in polyphenols, particularly oleuropein and antioxidant compounds.

  2. Picual: Picual olives are the most widely cultivated variety in Spain and are known for their high oil yield and stability. Olive oil made from Picual olives is often characterised by a strong and slightly bitter flavour, indicative of its high polyphenol content. 

  3. Koroneiki: Originating from Greece, the Koroneiki olive variety is known for producing olive oil with a robust flavour and a high concentration of polyphenols. Greek extra virgin olive oils, often made from Koroneiki olives, are renowned for their health benefits.

  4. Picholine: Picholine olives are mainly grown in France and the South of Italy and are used to produce a distinctive olive oil with a balanced and fruity profile. The oil from Picholine olives can contain notable levels of polyphenols.

  5. Frantoio: Frantoio is an Italian olive variety widely grown in Tuscany. Olive oil made from Frantoio olives is known for its rich and complex flavour profile, often accompanied by a notable presence of polyphenols.

  6. Leccino: Another Italian variety, Leccino olives are commonly grown in Tuscany and produce a milder olive oil. While Leccino oils may have a softer flavour, they can still contain significant levels of polyphenols.

It's important to note that the overall polyphenol content in olive oil is influenced by various factors, and the specific characteristics can vary from one harvest to another. Additionally, the designation of "extra virgin" is often associated with higher polyphenol content, as this grade of olive oil is made through a cold-pressing process without the use of heat or chemicals, preserving the natural compounds in the olives. To ensure you are getting olive oil with high polyphenol levels, look for reputable brands that provide information on the olive varieties used and the production methods employed.

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