Superfruits and polyphenols

Identifying and quantifying antioxidants would assist consumers with making better-for-you food choices. Consumers have been drawn to the many fruits — and foods made with these fruits — recognized as superfruits because of their antioxidant content. In fact, the term “superfruit” came around in 2004 when author Steven Pratt highlighted the antioxidant levels and anti-aging properties of blueberries in his bestseller, "Superfruits Rx." Blueberries are likely the best-known superfruit, yet the list of superfruits is constantly growing and ranges from the obvious (apple) and the increasingly more familiar (acaí and pomegranate) to the exotic (maqui berry).

What these superfruits all have in common is that they are concentrated sources of polyphenols, a class of compounds with a structure that allows them to function as free radical scavengers. For example, ellagic acid is the predominant phenolic compound found in pomegranates, while resveratrol is the polyphenol found in the skin of red grapes.

“Polyphenols are a group of chemical substances found in plants characterized by the presence of more than one phenol unit,” said Rinus Heemskerk, global head of product development and innovation for Olam Cocoa. “Polyphenols are the most abundant antioxidants in our diets, with flavonoids the most abundant type of polyphenol.”

These compounds qualify certain plants and components of plants, for example, fruits, nuts, seeds and so forth, as sources of antioxidants. Polyphenol compounds can be isolated from plants or reproduced chemically and used directly in food formulations to deliver a highly concentrated source of antioxidants.

Cornucopia of components

The polyphenol resveratrol was the primary antioxidant ingredient used in the manufacture of Winetime bars by ResVez Inc., Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Discovered more than 50 years ago, resveratrol is produced naturally as a defense mechanism against environmental stagress by more than 70 species of plants. The popularity of resveratrol stems from its abundance in grapes (Vitis vinifera) used to make red wine.

Scientific data suggest that resveratrol, plus the flavonoids and other polyphenols found in grapes and produced during the fermentation that turns grape juice to red wine, is the basis of what has become known as the French Paradox. This concept claims to explain why the French can eat a diet relatively high in saturated fats yet enjoy a relatively low incidence of cardiovascular disease compared with Americans. France drinks five times more wine per capita than the U.S.

Although the resveratrol and other polyphenols in red wine are enthusiastically promoted for heart health, for the most part, one cannot get enough via moderate consumption to reap any health benefits. This led to the development of resveratrol ingredients, which can be added to baked goods and other foods and beverages.

There are many similar plant extracts available to formulators. For example, grapeseed extract is a concentrated source of proanthocyanidins (a class of polyphenols). Studies have shown grapeseed extract to be as up to 50 times greater at scavenging free radicals than vitamins C and E.

Coffee fruit is another. Also known as coffee berry, this is the fruit surrounding the coffee bean. Previously discarded as a byproduct of coffee production, coffee fruit has been scientifically recognized as an antioxidant powerhouse with robust wellness qualities, including healthy energy, immune support, weight management, joint support and cognitive function.

Similar to a vitamin, coenzyme Q10 functions as an antioxidant. It is used by cells to produce the energy that the body needs for cell growth and maintenance and helps sustain heart health and blood pressure.

Another concentrated polyphenol ingredient is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCg), which is structurally categorized as a catechin. Mostly associated with green tea, catechins can be found in an array of plants from barley to peaches and even cocoa.