These 15 Polyphenol-Rich Foods Fight Inflammation With Every Bite

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Longevity is a topic that has garnered extensive interest of late, particularly since COVID-19. (Nothing makes you pay attention to your long-term health quite like a global pandemic, amirite?) And while there are many ways you can boost your longevity through lifestyle, one of the easiest steps is to eat more foods with antioxidants, particularly polyphenol-rich foods.

What are polyphenols?

Polyphenols are organic compounds found in many plants that have been linked to a host of health benefits from boosting cognitive functioning and immune health to preventing chronic disease. These powerful compounds are best-known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which help fight damage that comes from free-radicals in the environment. There are more than 8,000 polyphenols out there, and they are divided into four main categories: flavonoids, stilbenes, lignans, and phenolic acids.

Experts In This Article

Thankfully, polyphenols are found in many of our favorite anti-inflammatory foods.

11 polyphenol-rich foods that fight inflammation

According to Will Bulsiewicz, MD, gastroenterologist and author of Fiber Fueled, foods with the most polyphenols tend to have one thing in common: They're colorful. “Every single plant color comes from polyphenols,” Dr. Bulsiewicz says. As such, the best way to ensure you're getting enough polyphenols daily is by loading up on a wide variety of plants. “We are eating for longevity when we build plant diversity into our approach."

Bottom line? Upping your intake of the following polyphenol-rich foods and beverages is a no brainer—so long as they please your palate.

“Every single plant color comes from polyphenols. We are eating for longevity when we build plant diversity into our approach."
—Will Bulsiewicz, MD, gastroenterologist

15 polyphenol-rich foods that help 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 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,” says Trista Best, MS, RD. “[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."

Herbs and spices are excellent flavor boosters that transcend cuisines and 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 or whip up a batch of chicken pho during your meal prep session.

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 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. 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.

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, as high consumption of it—as well as olives themselves—is linked to positive long-term health outcomes. 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. Keep in mind that when it comes to shopping for olive oil, you'll want to look for extra-virgin, cold-pressed, and organic olive oils to ensure you’re getting the best quality and flavor.

6. Whole grains

Whole grains—from wheat and rye to oats, rice, barley, and more—are excellent sources of polyphenols. 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 magnesium. Try bulking up a salad with cooked quinoa or farro, make your morning toast on Ezekiel bread, or experiment with ancient grain flours 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. In fact, if you're wondering what drink has the most polyphenols, these common breakfast bevvy are likely your best bets. (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 also has prebiotics to help 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. That's to say, 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 and antioxidant-rich 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 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 four grams of protein, two 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," Cassetty said. Research shows that the consumption of nuts can also 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.

“Walnuts contain more ALA—an anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid—than any other nut. 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.”
—Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD

9. 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 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.

10. Tempeh

Tempeh has become a popular plant protein source in recent years for both its versatility and numerous health benefits. Tempeh is one of the best polyphenol-rich foods high 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.

11. 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 four categories of polyphenols (plus vitamin C!) for a powerful antioxidant boost. Keep in mind, however, 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.

Additionally, studies suggest that consuming apples, one of the top polyphenol-rich foods on the list, 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.

Why eating polyphenol-rich foods is important for long-term health

Polyphenols can help protect against cognitive decline

"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.

They offer protective benefits for many essential body systems

Research also 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. Additionally, the consumption of polyphenols has been linked to better protection against chronic diseases, such as cancers, cardiovascular diseases, cerebrovascular diseases, diabetes, aging and neurodegenerative diseases.

Does cooking destroy polyphenols?

Now that we've identified key polyphenol-rich foods, it's important to note the impact different cooking applications may have on these delicate compounds.

Research suggests that boiling, steaming, and frying polyphenol-rich foods can significantly alter their composition. Frying, in particular, has potentially the most profound impact on polyphenols, flavonoids, carotenoids, and antioxidants found in leafy vegetables. As such, you may want to avoid applying these aforementioned cooking techniques in order to reap the most benefits.

Discover more about turmeric, one of the top polyphenol-rich foods on the list:

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
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