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.
Polyphenols are naturally occurring compounds found largely in the fruits, vegetables, cereals and beverages. Fruits like grapes, apple, pear, cherries and berries contains up to 200–300 mg polyphenols per 100 grams fresh weight. The products manufactured from these fruits, also contain polyphenols in significant amounts. Typically a glass of red wine or a cup of tea or coffee contains about 100 mg polyphenols. Cereals, dry legumes and chocolate also contribute to the polyphenolic intake.
Favonoids comprise the most studied group of polyphenols.
Protection against Diseases
Polyphenols or polyphenol rich diets provide significant protection against the development and progression of many chronic pathological conditions including cancer, diabetes, cardio-vascular problems and aging. Although several biological effects based on epidemiological studies can be scientifically explained, the mechanism of action of some effects of polyphenols is not fully understood. A better knowledge of some variables of polyphenol bioavailability; such as the kinetics of absorption, accumulation and elimination, will facilitate the design of such studies. The role of polyphenols in human health is still a fertile area of research. Based on our current scientific understanding, polyphenols offer great hope for the prevention of chronic human diseases.
Polyphenols in Plants
Certain polyphenols like quercetin are found in all plant products; fruit, vegetables, cereals, fruit juices, tea, wine, infusions etc., whereas flavanones and isoflavones are specific to particular foods. In most cases, foods contain complex mixtures of polyphenols. The outer layers of plants contain higher levels of phenolics than those located in their inner parts. Numerous factors affect the polyphenol content of plants, these include degree of ripeness at the time of harvest, environmental factors, processing and storage. Polyphenolic content of the foods are greatly affected by environmental factors as well as edaphic factors like soil type, sun exposure, rainfall etc. The degree of ripeness considerably affects the concentrations and proportions of various polyphenols. In general, it has been observed that phenolic acid content decreases during ripening, whereas anthocyanin concentrations increase. Many polyphenols, especially phenolic acids, are directly involved in the response of plants to different types of stress: they contribute to healing by lignifications of damaged areas possess antimicrobial properties, and their concentrations may increase after infection.
Content of Polyphenols after Storage and Cooking
Another factor that directly affects the polyphenol content of the foods is storage. Studies have proved that polyphenolic content of the foods change on storage, the reason is easy oxidation of these polyphenols. Oxidation reactions result in the formation of more or less polymerized substances, which lead to changes in the quality of foods, particularly in color and organoleptic characteristics. Such changes may be beneficial, as is the case with black tea or harmful as in browning of fruit. Storage of wheat flour results in marked loss of phenolic acids. After six months of storage, flour contained the same phenolic acids in qualitative terms, but their concentrations were 70% lower compared with fresh. Cold storage, in contrast, has slight effect on the content of polyphenols in apples, pears or onions. Cooking also has a major effect on concentration of polyphenols. Onions and tomatoes lose between 75% and 80% of their initial quercetin content after boiling for 15 min, 65% after cooking in a microwave oven, and 30% after frying.