YOUR DINNER PLATE (WHTM) — Polyphenols are in a lot of the foods we eat and drink. So what the heck’s a polyphenol, anyway?

Well, “poly” is derived from the ancient Greek word for “many.” That’s simple enough, but “phenol” requires a little more explaining. Phenols are basically “hydroxyl groups” (a carbon atom linked to a hydrogen atom) bonded to an “aromatic hydrocarbon group” which is a six-sided carbon ring, (you may remember it from high school science), with some hydrogen atoms.

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Phenol Molecule (National Institutes of Health)

The simplest phenol-the phenol, you might say-is also known as carbolic acid, and it’s pretty nasty stuff. But just as poisonous sodium and poisonous chlorine combine to produce the essential nutrient sodium chloride (table salt), so phenols bonded with each other produce a number of polyphenol compounds with many beneficial effects. (A Google search for “medically tested effects of polyphenols” returns over 11,000 results, mostly research papers.)

Scientists have identified over 8000 polyphenols, which as a group are sometimes also referred to as phytochemicals. (An online search for “polyphenols” will often include results with “phytochemicals” and vice-versa.) They can be divided into four main groups: flavonoids, phenolic acids, stilbenes, and lignans. They are mostly found in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fats (vegetable, of course) and in a number of spices and seasonings. If you prefer to drink your polyphenols, they can be found in coffee, tea, and red wine.

Polyphenols act as antioxidants-substances that may protect your cells against free radicals, molecules produced when your body breaks down food. Research suggests polyphenols can help reduce the risks of type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, hypertension, asthma, cancer, inflammation, and neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s and Perkinson’s have received a lot of attention.)

Of course, you shouldn’t just rush off willy-nilly to try some new fad diet just because it contains the magic word polyphenol. Excessive amounts of polyphenol could have unexpected and adverse side effects. An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition paper notes overdoses could cause genetic damage, cancer, thyroid problems, and reproduction issues. The nutritional benefits of polyphenol might block other nutrition processes. Food allergies and medical conditions also need to be factored in. And the benefits of a polyphenol in a food should be balanced against the possible negative effects of the food itself.

So polyphenols, on balance, provide many benefits, but it’s also entirely possible to get too much of a good thing. Do your research, consult the experts, and everything in moderation.

For a detailed look at the different types of polyphenols and their health effects, click here.

For a deep dive into benefits vs risk, click here.

For a list of phytochemicals in food, click here.

For a list of polyphenols/phytochemicals in food, click here.

To look at some of the different ways molecules are visualized (in this case phenol) , click here. (Moving the 3D Conformer versions around is fun!)