Healthy Eating Tips

12 Foods Rich in Polyphenols, a Powerful Anti-Inflammatory Agent Linked to Longevity

Photo: Stocksy/Carli Teteris
Longevity is a hot topic that has become even hotter in light of the pandemic these last few years. Many of those particularly invested in researching how to live a long, healthy life naturally gravitate towards adopting the lifestyle habits of those living in the Blue Zones, or regions of the world where people live the longest. One of the methods you'll quickly learn when interested in boosting your longevity begins with stocking your kitchen with antioxidant-rich ingredients.

What are polyphenols?

Polyphenols are organic compounds found primarily in plants that have been linked to a host of health benefits from boosting your cognitive functioning and bolstering your immune system to preventing chronic disease. These powerful compounds are best-known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that help us live our healthiest, happiest, and longest lives possible. And thankfully, they are found in many of our favorite foods. "A higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and plant-based foods provides polyphenols and other bioactive compounds that could help reduce the risk of cognitive decline due to aging," Cristina Andrés-Lacueva, PhD, professor at the Faculty of Pharmacy and Food Sciences and head of the Biomarkers and Nutritional Metabolomics of Food Research Group of the UB previously told Well+Good.

Research shows these powerful plant compounds help stave off free radical damage, UV radiation, and even some types of pathogens—they also have antifungal and antibacterial properties. Polyphenols boost our brain, heart, immune, and digestive health, making the consumption of these compounds an essential component of nourishing ourselves. There are more than 8,000 polyphenols out there, and they are divided into four main categories: flavonoids, stilbenes, lignans, and phenolic acids.

“Every single plant color comes from polyphenols,” says Will Bulsiewicz, MD, U.S. Medical Director of Zoe and author of Fiber Fueled. “So, we are eating for longevity when we build plant diversity into our approach.”

Filling your plate with a variety of polyphenol-rich foods from each of these four categories will not only offer a holistic health boost, but they will also offer a host of other essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Upping your intake of the following foods and beverages packed with polyphenols will boost your intake of all four types and have you well on your way to feeling your best.

12 foods rich in polyphenols that help to boost longevity

1. Herbs and Spices

The unassuming (and possibly very unorganized) spice rack is actually our ultimate destination for getting a polyphenol boost. Herbs and spices are some of the top sources of polyphenols out there with cloves, peppermint, cilantro, sage, rosemary, turmeric with black pepper, ginger, and thyme being among your best bets.

“Ginger, for one, is excellent for promoting health longevity because it contains compounds known as gingerols and shogaols, two compounds which create an antioxidant effect that reduces free radical damage in the body,” Trista Best, MS, RD previously told Well+Good. “[And when black pepper] is commonly consumed alongside turmeric, it helps the body absorb its beneficial curcuminoids more easily, however black pepper has plenty of its own benefits as well. The active compound, pepperine, has been shown to improve cognition and overall brain function, which allows the brain to age more gracefully,” Best said.

All herbs and spices are excellent flavor boosters that transcend multiple cuisines and are sure to inspire many delicious meals that will broaden your culinary horizons. They also have been shows to protect against chronic disease as well as general inflammation. Not sure where to start? Try making cloves the star of your next baking venture, whip up a batch of chicken pho during your meal prep session, or stir up the polyphenol-rich herbal tincture below to easily (and deliciously) up your intake.

2. Dark Chocolate and Cocoa Powder

Cocoa powder and dark chocolate also sit among the top ranks for the most polyphenol-rich food sources. Chocolate and cocoa feature flavonoids, a type of polyphenol that is known for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic abilities. Catherine Perez, MS, RD, LDN, advises shopping for chocolate that is at least 70 percent cacao to reap all the heart-healthy benefits and beyond.

Though milk chocolate has significantly less polyphenols than dark chocolate or a high-quality cocoa powder, it still serves as a mild source for those who find the bittersweet flavor of darker bars unappealing (just look for options without excess added sugar to avoid counteracting the anti-inflammatory effects of the polyphenols). Enjoy your favorite chocolate by making a cozy (and nourishing) cup of hot chocolate or try adding a tablespoon of cocoa powder to your morning smoothie.

3. Berries

Blueberries, blackberries, elderberries, raspberries, strawberries, and the like are all excellent sources of anthocyanins, a sub-category of flavonoids known for their ability to stave off oxidative stress, cardiovascular issues, and neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s. These colorful (thanks to the anthocyanins) and fiber-rich fruits are a perfect addition to your morning oatmeal or cereal, topping for yogurt, and simple dessert pairing with dark chocolate for a double-whammy of polyphenols.

Better yet, try this antioxidant-rich vegan berries and whipped cream recipe and drizzle dark chocolate on top:

4. Flax seeds

Flax seeds are well-known as a top plant-based source of omega-3 fats, but they are also polyphenol-rich. Flax seeds are a super source of lignans—a type of polyphenol that is found primarily in legumes, cereals, and other whole grains—which are linked to protection against heart disease, breast cancer, and osteoporosis.

It’s easiest to purchase flax seeds that have already been ground to make it easy to add them to a morning smoothie (Dr. Bulsiewicz says that he puts them in his everyday!), mix in with oatmeal, and use as a substitute for eggs or breadcrumbs. Whole flax seeds are great for topping salads, adding to a granola recipe, or bringing some crunch to yogurt.

5. Olives and olive oil

Olive oil is the polyphenol-rich poster child for the Mediterranean Diet, and high consumption of it—as well as olives themselves—is linked to longevity. Black olives offer about double the polyphenol punch compared to green olives, but both are still some of the top food sources out there. Enjoy olives on their own, as a topping for pasta or salad, or as part of a cheese board. When it comes to shopping for olive oil, look for extra-virgin, cold-pressed, and organic olive oils to ensure you’re getting the best quality to reap the most health-promoting benefits.

6. Whole Grains

Whole grains—from wheat and rye to oats, rice, barley, and more—are excellent sources of lignans, the sub-category of polyphenols that flax belongs to. Choosing whole-grain flours, breads, pastas, cereals, and rice will not only give you a longevity boost from polyphenols, but you’ll also get a hefty dose of plant protein, fiber, B vitamins, and several types of minerals, including magnesium. Try bulking up a salad with cooked quinoa or farro, make your favorite morning toast on Ezekiel bread, or experiment with ancient grain flours the next time you try baking your own bread.

7. Coffee and Tea

Whether you prefer to start your day with a cup of Earl Gray or freshly ground coffee, you’ll reap the many health benefits of polyphenols. Coffee and tea are good sources of phenolic acids, and green tea is also a good source of flavonoids, both types of polyphenols.

Coffee is also a good source of several vitamins and minerals (think: vitamin B5 and potassium) and Dr. Bulsiewicz says that it has prebiotics to keep you regular. Meanwhile, various types of teas offer a range of benefits from supporting cognitive functioning and strengthening your cardiovascular system to helping your skin achieve a radiant glow. If you already have a morning or afternoon coffee or tea ritual, keep it up. If you don’t already drink either and are concerned about your caffeine intake, try a green or white tea, which have less caffeine than coffee, or go caffeine-free with an herbal option.

8. Nuts

Nuts don’t need any more good PR for us to know they are quite the nutrient-dense food, but they offer more than just the healthy fats and vitamin E they are most often touted for. Almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts are particularly strong sources of polyphenols (they are rich in phenolic acids). “Walnuts [also] contain more ALA—an anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid—than any other nut,” Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD previously told Well+Good. “Additionally, a serving of walnuts contains 4 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, and 11 percent of your daily magnesium requirement. They also supply a considerable amount of antioxidants, including polyphenols, which have a beneficial effect on your gut health and reduce your risk of chronic disease."

Research shows that the consumption of nuts can help protect against heart disease, gallstones, cancer, and general inflammation. Use them in a polyphenol-rich snack mix with chopped dark chocolate and fresh or dried berries for the ultimate mid-morning or afternoon pick-me-up. Dr. Bulsiewicz adds that he loves using them as a salad topping.

9. Red Wine

While the actual health benefits of alcohol are, of course, debated, there is one type that seems to have the most research to support positive health outcomes: Wine, and particularly red wine. Resveratrol belongs to the stilbenes category of polyphenols and is linked to a host of benefits. This plant compound is antifungal, antibacterial, loaded with antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and even shows to protect against tumors and cancer. Cannonau, a red varietal from the Sardinia, one of the five Blue Zones, offers two to three times the polyphenol content of other reds if you really want the longevity boost. "Another reason Sardinians may experience these wine health benefits is the way they consume it—always surrounded by good friends and good food," Dan Buettner, founder of Blue Zones, told Well+Good.

10. Red onions

We don’t often think of the humble onion as being great for more than laying a delicious foundation for a favorite soup or Sunday sauce recipe, but these alliums are packed with essential nutrients. Red onions in particular are good sources of polyphenols, especially flavonoids. A 2020 study in Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that onions offer antioxidant and anti-neuroinflammatory effects, as well as high levels of quercetin, a flavonoid that’s been shown to have strong anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and cardiovascular-boosting properties. Try adding chopped red onion in your favorite guacamole recipe, pickle a red onion to use in salads and sandwiches, and be sure to save the skins for making stock.

11. Tempeh

Tempeh has become a popular plant protein source in recent years for both its versatility and numerous health benefits. Tempeh is rich in isoflavones, a type of flavonoid found in soybeans that supports cellular and blood vessel health and also contains some serious antioxidant power. Tempeh is a fermented food and is high in fiber, making it a great pick for someone looking to give their gut health an upgrade. Try making sliced tempeh “bacon” for a hearty vegan sandwich, crumble it in a bolognese sauce, or cube it and cook in a stir-fry.

Learn more about the benefits of soy, according to an RD, in this video:

12. Apples

While berries are most often linked with antioxidants, apples are also a great source of polyphenols, boasting even more than green tea, red wine, and walnuts. In fact, apples contain all categories of polyphenols plus vitamin C for a powerful antioxidant boost. Research shows that it’s important to consume the peel to reap all the polyphenol benefits when possible, as that’s where a strong portion of flavonoids lie.

Studies suggest that consuming apples can help impact your blood vessels, heart, and digestive function, giving you plenty of motivation to munch on them year-round. We always love a simple apple and nut butter toast, but apples are also delicious baked with a sprinkling of granola for a sweet treat or chopped in a salad for some extra crunch.

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