Category Archives: Polyphenols

Flavonoid biosynthesis pathway

The flavonoid biosynthetic pathway in plants

Flavonoid Biosynthesis
Fig. 1 – Fig. 1 – Biosynthesis of Flavonoids

The biosynthesis of flavonoids, probably the best characterized pathway of plant secondary metabolism, is part of the phenylpropanoid pathway that, in addition to flavonoids, leads to the formation of a wide range of phenolic compounds, such as hydroxycinnamic acids, stilbenes, lignans and lignins.
Flavonoid biosynthesis is linked to primary metabolism through both mitochondria- and plastid-derived molecules. Since it seems that most of the involved enzymes characterized to date operate in protein complexes located in the cell cytosol, these molecules must be exported to the cytoplasm to be used.
The end products are transported to different intracellular or extracellular locations, with flavonoids involved in pigmentation usually transported into the vacuoles.
The biosynthesis of this group of polyphenols requires one p-coumaroyl-CoA and three malonyl-CoA molecules as initial substrates.

Biosynthesis of p-coumaroyl-CoA

Flavonoid Biosynthesis
Fig. 2 – p-Cumaroyl-CoA

p-Coumaroyl-CoA is the pivotal branch-point metabolite in the phenylpropanoid pathway, being the precursor of a wide variety of phenolic compounds, both flavonoid and non-flavonoid polyphenols.
It is produced from phenylalanine via three reactions catalyzed by cytosolic enzymes collectively called group I or early-acting enzymes, in order of action:

  • phenylalanine ammonia lyase (EC;
  • cinnamate 4-hydroxylase or cinnamic acid 4-hydroxylase (EC;
  • 4-cumarato: CoA ligase or hydroxycinnamic: CoA ligase (EC

They seems to be associated in a multienzyme complex anchored to the endoplasmic reticulum membrane. The anchoring is probably ensured by cinnamate 4-hydroxylase that inserts its N-terminal domain into the membrane of the endoplasmic reticulum itself. These complexes, referred to as “metabolons”, allow the product of a reaction to be channeled directly as substrate to the active site of the enzyme that catalyzes the consecutive reaction in the metabolic pathway.
With the exception of cinnamate 4-hydroxylase, the enzymes which act downstream of phenylalanine ammonia lyase are encoded by small gene families in all species analyzed so far.
The different isoenzymes show distinct temporal, tissue, and elicitor-induced patterns of expression. It seems, in fact, that each member of each family can be used mainly for the synthesis of a specific compound, thus acting as a control point for carbon flux among the metabolic pathways leading to lignan, lignin, and flavonoid biosynthesis.

Note: phenylalanine is a product of the shikimic acid pathway, which converts simple precursors derived from carbohydrate metabolism, phosphoenolpyruvate and erythrose-4-phosphate, into the aromatic amino acids phenylalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan. Unlike plants and microorganisms, animals do not possess the shikimic acid pathway, and are not able to synthesize the three above-mentioned amino acids, which are therefore essential nutrients.

Phenylalanine ammonia lyase (PAL)

Flavonoid Biosynthesis
Fig. 3 – Phenylalanine Ammonia Lyase

It is one of the most studied and best characterized enzymes of plant secondary metabolism. It requires no cofactors and catalyzes the reaction that links primary and secondary metabolism: the deamination of phenylalanine to trans-cinnamic acid, with the release of nitrogen as ammonia and introduction of a trans double bond between carbon atoms 7 and 8 of the side chain. Therefore, it directs the flow of carbon from the shikimic acid pathway to the different branches of the phenylpropanoid pathway. The released ammonia is probably fixed in the reaction catalyzed by glutamine synthetase.
The enzyme from monocots is also able to act as tyrosine ammonia lyase (EC, converting tyrosine to p-coumaric acid directly, (therefore without the 4-hydroxylation step), but with a lower efficiency.
In all plant species investigated,  several copies of phenylalanine ammonia lyase gene are found, copies that probably respond differentially to internal and external stimuli. Indeed, gene transcription, and then enzyme activity, are under the control of both internal developmental and external environmental stimuli. Here are some examples that require increased enzyme activity.

  • The flowering.
  • The  production of lignin to strengthen the secondary wall of xylem cells.
  • The production of flower pigments that attract pollinators.
  • Pathogen infections, that require the production of phenylpropanoid phytoalexins, or exposure to UV rays.

Cinnamate 4-hydroxylase (C4H)

Flavonoid Biosynthesis
Fig. 4 – Cinnamate 4-Hydroxylase

It belongs to the cytochrome P450 superfamily (EC 1.14.-.-), is a microsomal monooxygenase containing a heme cofactor, and dependent on both O2  and NADPH. It catalyzes the formation of p-coumaric acid  through the introduction of a hydroxyl group in 4-position of trans-cinnamic acid (this hydroxyl group is present in most flavonoids). This reaction is also part of the biosynthesis of hydroxycinnamic acids.
Increases in transcription rates and enzyme activity are observed in correlation with the synthesis of phytoalexins (in response to fungal infections), lignification as well as wounding.

4-Coumarate:CoA ligase (4CL)

Flavonoid Biosynthesis
Fig. 5 – 4-Coumarate:CoA Ligase

With Mg2+ as a cofactor, it catalyzes the ATP-dependent activation of the carboxyl group of p-coumaric acid and other hydroxycinnamic acids, metabolically rather inert molecules, through the formation of the corresponding CoA-thioester. Generally, p-coumaric acid and caffeic acid are the preferred substrates, followed by ferulic acid and 5-hydroxyferulic acid, low activity against trans-cinnamic acid and none against sinapic acid. These CoA-thioesters are able to enter various reactions such as:

  • reduction to alcohol (monolignols) or aldehydes;
  • stilbene and flavonoid biosynthesis;
  • transfer to acceptor molecules.

It should finally be pointed out that the activation of the carboxyl group can also be obtained through an UDP-glucose-dependent transfer to glucose.

Biosynthesis of malonyl-CoA

Malonyl-CoA does not derived from the phenylpropanoid pathway, but from the reaction catalyzed by acetyl-CoA carboxylase (EC, the cytosolic form, see below). The enzyme, with biotin and Mg2+ as cofactors, catalyzes the ATP-dependent carboxylation of acetyl-CoA, using bicarbonate as a source of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Flavonoid Biosynthesis
Fig. 6 – Acetyl-CoA Carboxylase

It is found both in the plastids, where it participates in the synthesis of fatty acids, and the cytoplasm, and is the latter that catalyzes the formation of malonyl-CoA that is used in the biosynthesis of flavonoids and other compounds. Increases in the transcription rate of the gene and enzyme activity are induced in response to stimuli that increase the biosynthesis of these polyphenols, such as exposure to pathogenic fungi or UV-rays.
In turn, acetyl-CoA is produced in plastids, mitochondria, peroxisomes and cytosol through different metabolic pathways. The molecules used in the biosynthesis of malonyl-CoA, and therefore of the flavonoids, are  the cytosolic ones, produced in the reaction catalyzed by ATP-citrate lyase (EC that cleaves citrate, in the presence of CoA and ATP, to form oxaloacetate and acetyl-CoA, plus ADP and inorganic phosphate.

The first steps in flavonoid biosynthesis

Flavonoid Biosynthesis
Fig. 7 – Naringenin Chalcone

The first step in flavonoid biosynthesis is catalyzed by chalcone synthase (EC, an enzyme anchored to the endoplasmic reticulum and with no known cofactors.
From one p-coumaroyl-CoA and three malonyl-CoA, it catalyzes sequential condensation and decarboxylation reactions in the course of which a polyketide intermediate is formed. The polyketide undergoes cyclizations and aromatizations leading to the formation of the A ring. The product of the reactions is naringenin chalcone (2′,4,4′,6′-tetrahydroxychalcone), a 6′-hydroxychalcone and the first flavonoid to be synthesized by plants.
The reaction, cytosolic, is irreversible due to the release of three CO2 and 4 CoA.

Flavonoid Biosynthesis
Fig. 8 – Basic Flavonoid Skeleton

The B ring and the three-carbon bridge of the molecule originate from p-coumaroyl-CoA (and therefore from phenylalanine), the A ring from the three malonyl-CoA units.
Also 6’-deoxychalcone can be produced; its synthesis is thought to involve an additional reduction step catalyzed by polyketide reductase (EC. 1.1.1.-).
Chalcone synthase from some plant species, such as barley (Hordeum vulgare), accepts as substrates also caffeoil-CoA, feruloil-CoA and cinnamoyl-CoA.
It is the most abundant enzyme of the phenylpropanoid pathway, probably because it has a low catalytic activity, and, in fact, is considered to be the rate-limiting enzyme in flavonoid biosynthesis.
As for phenylalanine ammonia lyase, chalcone synthase gene expression is under the control of both internal and external factors. In some plants, one or two isoenzymes are found, while in others up to 9.
Chalcone synthase belongs to polyketide synthase group, present in bacteria, fungi and plants. These enzymes are able to catalyze the production of polyketide chains through sequential condensations of acetate units provided by malonyl-CoA units. They also includes stilbene synthase (EC, which catalyzes the formation of resveratrol, a non flavonoid polyphenol compound that has attracted much interest because of its potential health benefits.

Flavonoid Biosynthesis
Fig. 9 – (2S)-Naringenin

Generally, chalcones do not accumulate in plants because naringenin chalcone is converted to (2S)-naringenin, a flavanone, in the reaction catalyzed by chalcone isomerase (EC The enzyme, the first of the flavonoid biosynthesis to be discovered, catalyzes a stereospecific isomerization and closes the C ring. Two types of chalcone isomerases are known, called type I and II. Type I enzymes use only 6′-hydroxychalcone substrates, like naringenin chalcone, while type II, prevalent in legumes, use both 6′-hydroxy- and 6′-deoxychalcone substrates.
It should be noted that with 6′-hydroxychalcones, isomerization can also occur nonenzymically to form a racemic mixture, both in vitro and in vivo, enough to allow a moderate synthesis of anthocyanins. On the contrary, under physiological conditions 6′-deoxychalcones are stable, and so the activity of type II chalcone isomerases is required to form flavanones.
The enzyme increases the rate of the reaction of 107 fold compared to the spontaneous reaction, but with a higher kinetics for the 6′-hydroxychalcones than 6′-deoxychalcones. Finally, it produces (2S)-flavanones, which are the biosynthetically required enantiomers.
As other enzymes in flavonoid biosynthesis, also chalcone isomerase gene expression is subject to strict control. And, as phenylalanine ammonia lyase and chalcone synthase, it is induced by elicitors.

Flavonoid Biosynthesis
Fig. 10 – Dihydrokaempferol

In the reaction catalysed by flavanone-3β-hydroxylase (EC, (2S)-flavanones undergo a stereospecific isomerization that converts them into the respective (2R,3R)-dihydroflavonols. In particular, naringenin is converted into dihydrokaempferol.
The enzyme is a cytosolic non-heme-dependent dioxygenase, dependent on Fe2+ and 2-oxoglutarate, and therefore belonging to the family of 2-oxoglutarate-dependent dioxygenase (which distinguishes them from the other hydroxylases of the flavonoid biosynthetic pathway which are cytochrome P450 enzymes).
Naringenin chalcone, (2S)-naringenin, and dihydrokaempferol are central intermediates in flavonoid biosynthesis, since they act as branch-point compounds from which the synthesis of distinct flavonoid subclasses can occur. For example, directly or indirectly:

Not all of these side metabolic pathways are present in every plant species, or are active within each tissue type of a given plant. Like enzymes previously seen, the activity of those involved in these “side-routes” is subject to strict control, resulting in a tissue-specific profile of flavonoid compounds. For example, grape seeds, flesh and skin have distinct anthocyanin, catechin, flavonol and condensed tannin profiles, whose synthesis and accumulation are strictly and temporally coordinated during the ripening process.


Andersen Ø.M., Markham K.R. Flavonoids: chemistry, biochemistry, and applications. CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group, 2006

de la Rosa L.A., Alvarez-Parrilla E., Gonzàlez-Aguilar G.A. Fruit and vegetable phytochemicals: chemistry, nutritional value, and stability. 1th Edition. Wiley J. & Sons, Inc., Publication, 2010

Heldt H-W. Plant biochemistry – 3th Edition. Elsevier Academic Press, 2005

Vogt T. Phenylpropanoid biosynthesis. Mol Plant 2010;3(1):2-20 [Abstract]

Wink M. Biochemistry of plant secondary metabolism – 2nd Edition. Annual plant reviews (v. 40), Wiley J. & Sons, Inc., Publication, 2010

Lignans: definition, chemical structure, biosynthesis, metabolism, foods

What are lignans?

Lignans are a subgroup of non-flavonoid polyphenols.
They are widely distributed in the plant kingdom, being present in more than 55 plant families, where they act as antioxidants and defense molecules against pathogenic fungi and bacteria.
In humans, epidemiological and physiological studies have shown that they can exert positive effects in the prevention of lifestyle-related diseases, such as type II diabetes and cancer. For example, an increased dietary intake of these polyphenols correlates with a reduction in the occurrence of certain types of estrogen-related tumors, such as breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
In addition, some lignans have also aroused pharmacological interest. Examples are:

  • podophyllotoxin, obtained from plants of the genus Podophyllum (Berberidaceae family); it is a mitotic toxin whose derivatives have been used as chemotherapeutic agents;
  • arctigenin and tracheologin, obtained from tropical climbing plants; they have antiviral properties and have been tested in the search for a drug to treat AIDS .

Chemical structure of lignans

Fig. 1 – Phenylpropane unit

Their basic chemical structure consists of two phenylpropane units linked by a C-C bond between the central atoms of the respective side chains (position 8 or β), also called β-β’ bond. 3-3′, 8-O-4′, or 8-3′ bonds are observed less frequently; in these cases the dimers are called neolignans. Hence, their chemical structure is referred to as (C6-C3)2, and they are included in the phenylpropanoid group, as well as their precursors: the hydroxycinnamic acids (see below).
Based on their carbon skeleton, cyclization pattern, and the way in which oxygen is incorporated in the molecule skeleton, they can be divided into 8 subgroups: furans, furofurans, dibenzylbutanes, dibenzylbutyrolactones, dibenzocyclooctadienes, dibenzylbutyrolactols, aryltetralins and arylnaphthalenes. Furthermore, there is considerable variability regarding the oxidation level of both the propyl side chains and the aromatic rings.
They are not present in the free form in nature, but linked to other molecules, mainly as glycosylated derivatives.
Among the most common lignans, secoisolariciresinol (the most abundant one), lariciresinol, pinoresinol, matairesinol and 7-hydroxymatairesinol are found.

Note: they occur not only as dimers but also as more complex oligomers, such as dilignans and sesquilignans.

Biosynthesis of lignans

Fig. 2 – Lignan Biosynthesis

In this section, we will examine the synthesis of some of the most common lignans.
The pathway starts from 3 of the 4 most common dietary hydroxycinnamic acids: p-coumaric acid, sinapic acid, and ferulic acid (caffeic acid is not a precursor of this subgroup of polyphenols). Therefore, they arise from the shikimic acid pathway, via phenylalanine.
The first three reactions reduce the carboxylic group of the hydroxycinnamates to alcohol group, with formation of the corresponding alcohols, called monolignols, that is, p-coumaric alcohol, sinapyl alcohol and coniferyl alcohol. These molecules also enter the pathway of lignin biosynthesis.

  • The first step, which leads to the activation of the hydroxycinnamic acids, is catalysed by hydroxycinnamate:CoA ligases, commonly called p-coumarate:CoA ligases (EC, with formation of the corresponding hydroxycinnamate-CoAs, namely, feruloil-CoA, p- coumaroyl-CoA and sinapil-CoA.
  • In the second step, a NADPH-dependent cinnamoyl-CoA: oxidoreductase, also called cinnamoyl-CoA reductase (EC1.2.1.44) catalyzes the formation of the corresponding aldehydes, and the release of coenzyme A.
  • In the last step, a NADPH-dependent cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase, also called monolignol dehydrogenase (EC, catalyzes the reduction of the aldehyde group to an alcohol group, with the formation of the aforementioned monolignols.
Fig. 3 – (-)-Matairesinol

The next step, the dimerization of monolignols, involves the intervention of stereoselective mechanisms, or, more precisely, enantioselective mechanisms. In fact, most of the plant lignans exists as (+)- or (-)-enantiomers, whose relative amounts can vary from species to species, but also in different organs on the same plant, depending on the type of reactions involved.
The dimerization can occur through enzymatic reactions involving laccases (EC These enzymes catalyze the formation of radicals that, dimerizing, form a racemic mixture. However, this does not explain how the enantiomeric mixtures found in plants are formed. The most accepted mechanism to explain the stereospecific synthesis involves the action of the laccase and of a protein able to direct the synthesis toward one or the other of the two enantiomeric forms: the dirigent protein. The reaction scheme might be: the enzyme catalyzes the synthesis of phenylpropanoid radicals that are orientated in such a way to obtain the desired stereospecific coupling by the dirigent protein.
For example, pinoresinol synthase, consisting of laccase and dirigent protein, catalyzes the stereospecific synthesis of (+)-pinoresinol from two units of coniferyl alcohol. (+)-Pinoresinol, in two consecutive stereospecific reactions catalyzed by NADPH-dependent pinoresinol/lariciresinol reductase (EC, is first reduced to (+)-lariciresinol, and then to (-)-secoisolariciresinol. (-)-Secoisolariciresinol, in the reaction catalyzed by NAD(P)-dependent secoisolariciresinol dehydrogenase (EC is oxidized to (-)-matairesinol.

Metabolism of lignans by human gut microbiota

Their importance to human health is due largely to their metabolism by colonic microbiota, which carries out deglycosylations, para-dehydroxylations, and meta-demethylations without enantiomeric inversion. Indeed, this metabolization leads to the formation molecules with a modest estrogen-like activity (phytoestrogens), a situation similar to that observed with some isoflavones, such as those of soybean, some coumarins, and some stilbenes. These active metabolites are the so-called “mammalian lignans or enterolignans”, such as the aglycones of enterodiol and enterolactone, formed from secoisolariciresinol and matairesinol, respectively.
Studies conducted on animals fed diets rich in lignans have shown their presence as intact molecules, in low concentrations, in serum, suggesting that they may be absorbed as such from the intestine. These molecules exhibit estrogen-independent actions, both in vivo and in vitro, such as inhibition of angiogenesis, reduction of diabetes, and suppression of tumor growth.
Note: the term “phytoestrogen” refers to molecules with estrogenic or antiandrogenic activity, at least in vitro.

Once absorbed, they enter the enterohepatic circulation, and, in the liver, may undergo phase II reactions and be sulfated or glucuronidated, and finally excreted in the urine.

Food rich in lignans

Fig. 4 – (-)-Secoisolariciresinol

The richest dietary source is flaxseed (linseed), that contains mainly secoisolariciresinol, but also lariciresinol, pinoresinol and matairesinol in good quantity (for a total amount of more than 3.7 mg/100 g dry weight). They are also found in sesame seeds.
Another important source is whole grains.
They are also present in other foods, but in concentrations from one hundred to one thousand times lower than those of flaxseed. Examples are:

  • beverages, generally more abundant in red wine, followed in descending order by black tea, soy milk and coffee;
  • fruits, such as apricots, pears, peaches, strawberries;
  • among vegetables, Brassicaceae, garlic, asparagus and carrots;
  • lentils and beans.

Their presence in grains and, to a lesser extent in red wine and fruit, makes them, at least in individuals who follow a Mediterranean-style eating pattern, the main source of phytoestrogens.


Andersen Ø.M., Markham K.R. Flavonoids: chemistry, biochemistry, and applications. CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group, 2006

de la Rosa L.A., Alvarez-Parrilla E., Gonzàlez-Aguilar G.A. Fruit and vegetable phytochemicals: chemistry, nutritional value, and stability. 1th Edition. Wiley J. & Sons, Inc., Publication, 2010

Heldt H-W. Plant biochemistry – 3th Edition. Elsevier Academic Press, 2005

Manach C., Scalbert A., Morand C., Rémésy C., and Jime´nez L. Polyphenols: food sources and bioavailability. Am J Clin Nutr 2004;79(5):727-47 [Abstract]

Tsao R. Chemistry and biochemistry of dietary polyphenols. Nutrients 2010;2:1231-1246 [Abstract]

Satake H, Koyama T., Bahabadi S.E., Matsumoto E., Ono E. and Murata J. Essences in metabolic engineering of lignan biosynthesis. Metabolites 2015;5: 270-290 [Abstract]

van Duynhoven J., Vaughan E.E., Jacobs D.M., Kemperman R.A., van Velzen E.J.J, Gross G., Roger L.C., Possemiers S., Smilde A.K., Doré J., Westerhuis J.A.,and Van de Wiele T. Metabolic fate of polyphenols in the human superorganism. PNAS 2011;108(suppl. 1):4531-8 [Abstract]

Wink M. Biochemistry of plant secondary metabolism – 2nd Edition. Annual plant reviews (v. 40), Wiley J. & Sons, Inc., Publication, 2010

Hydroxycinnamic acids: definition, chemical structure, synthesis, foods

What are hydroxycinnamic acids?

Hydroxycinnamic acids or hydroxycinnamates are phenolic compounds belonging to non-flavonoid polyphenols.
They are present in all parts of fruits and vegetables although the highest concentrations are found in the outer part of ripe fruits, concentrations that decrease during ripening, while the total amount increases as the size of the fruits increases.

Their dietary intake has been associated with the prevention of the development of chronic diseases such as:

  • cardiovascular disease;
  • cancer;
  • type-2 diabetes.

These effects do seem to be due not only to their high antioxidant activity (that depends upon the hydroxylation pattern of the aromatic ring, see below), but also to other mechanisms of action such as, e.g., the reduction of intestinal absorption of glucose or the modulation of secretion of some gut hormones.

Chemical structure of hydroxycinnamic acids

Hydroxycinnamic Acids
Fig. 1 – C6-C3 Skeleton

Their basic structure is a benzene ring to which a three carbon chain is attached, structure that is referred to as C6-C3. Therefore they can be included in the phenylpropanoid group.
The main dietary hydroxycinnamates are:

  • caffeic acid or 3,4-dihydroxycinnamic acid;
  • ferulic acid or 4-hydroxy-3-methoxycinnamic acid;
  • sinapic acid or 4-hydroxy-3,5-dimethoxycinnamic acid;
  • p-coumaric acid or 4-coumaric acid or 4-hydroxycinnamic acid.

In nature, they are associated with other molecules to form, e.g., glycosylated derivatives or esters of tartaric acid, quinic acid, or shikimic acid. In addition, several hundreds of anthocyanins acylated with the aforementioned hydroxycinnamates have been identified (in descending order with p-coumaric acid, more than 150, caffeic acid, about 100, ferulic acid, about 60, and sinapic acid, about 25). They are rarely present in the free form, except in processed foods that have undergone fermentation, sterilization or freezing. For example, an overlong storage of blood orange fruits causes a massive hydrolysis of hydroxycinnamic derivatives to free acids, and this in turn could lead to the formation of malodorous compounds such as vinyl phenols, indicators of too advanced senescence of the fruit.

Biosynthesis of hydroxycinnamic acids

Hydroxycinnamic Acids
Fig. 2 – Biosynthesis of Hydroxycinnamates

Hydroxycinnamate biosynthesis consists of a series of enzymatic reactions subsequent to that catalyzed by phenylalanine ammonia lyase (PAL). This enzyme catalyzes the deamination of phenylalanine to yield trans-cinnamic acid, so linking the aromatic amino acid to the hydroxycinnamic acids and their activated forms.
In the first step, a hydroxyl group is attached at the 4-position of the aromatic ring of trans-cinnamic acid to form p-coumaric acid (reaction catalysed by cinnamic acid 4-hydroxylase). The addition of a second hydroxyl group at the 3-position of the ring of p-coumaric acid leads to the formation of caffeic acid (reaction catalysed by p-coumarate 3-hydroxylase or phenolase), while the O-methylation of the hydroxyl group at the 3-position yields ferulic acid (reaction catalyzed by catechol-O-methyltransferase). In turn, ferulic acid is converted into sinapic acid through two reactions: a hydroxylation at the 5-position to form 5-hydroxy ferulic acid (reaction catalysed by ferulate 5-hydroxylase), and the subsequent O-methylation of the same hydroxyl group (reaction catalyzed by catechol-O-methyltransferase).
Hydroxycinnamic acids are not present in high quantities since they are rapidly converted to glucose esters or coenzyme A (CoA) esters, in reactions catalyzed by O-glucosyltransferases and hydroxycinnamate:CoA ligases, respectively. These activated intermediates are branch points, being able to participate in a wide range of reactions such as condensation with malonyl-CoA to form flavonoids, or the NADPH-dependent reduction to form lignans (precursors of lignin).

The main hydroxycinnamic acids in foods

Kiwis, blueberries, plums, cherries, apples, pears, chicory, artichokes, carrots, lettuce, eggplant, wheat and coffee are among the richest sources.

Caffeic acid

Hydroxycinnamic Acids
Fig. 3 – Caffeic Acid

It is generally, both in the free form and bound to other molecules, the most abundant hydroxycinnamic acid in vegetables and most of the fruits, where it represents between 75 and 100% of the hydroxycinnamates.
The richest sources are coffee (drink), carrots, lettuce, potatoes, even sweet ones, and berries such as blueberries, cranberries and blackberries.
Smaller quantities are present in grapes and grape-derived products, orange juice, apples, plums, peaches, and tomatoes.
Caffeic acid and quinic acid bind to form chlorogenic acid, present in many fruit and in high concentration in coffee.

Ferulic acid

Hydroxycinnamic Acids
Fig. 4 – Ferulic Acid

It is the most abundant hydroxycinnamic acid in cereals, which are also its main dietary source.
In wheat grain, its content is between 0.8 and 2 g/kg dry weight, which represents up to 90% of the total polyphenols. It is found chiefly, up to 98% of the total content, in the aleurone layer and pericarp (that is, the outer parts of the grain), and therefore its content in wheat flours depends upon the degree of refining, while the main source is obviously the bran. The molecule is present mainly in the trans form, and esterified with arabinoxylans and hemicelluloses. And in fact, in wheat bran the soluble free form represents only about 10% of its total amount. Dimers were also found, which form bridge structures between chains of hemicellulose.
In fruits and vegetables, ferulic acid is much less common than caffeic acid. The main sources are asparagus, eggplant and broccoli; lower quantities are found in blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, apples, carrots, potatoes, beets, coffee and orange juice.

Sinapic acid

Hydroxycinnamic Acids
Fig. 5 – Sinapic Acid

The highest amounts are found in citrus peel and seeds (in orange juice, the amount is much lower); appreciable quantities in Chinese cabbage and in some varieties of cranberries.

p-Coumaric acid

Hydroxycinnamic Acids
Fig. 6 – p-Coumaric Acid

High amounts are present in eggplant, the richest source, broccoli and asparagus; other sources are sweet cherries, plums, blueberries, cranberries, citrus peel and seeds, and orange juice.


Andersen Ø.M., Markham K.R. Flavonoids: chemistry, biochemistry, and applications. CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group, 2006

de la Rosa L.A., Alvarez-Parrilla E., Gonzàlez-Aguilar G.A. Fruit and vegetable phytochemicals: chemistry, nutritional value, and stability. 1th Edition. Wiley J. & Sons, Inc., Publication, 2010

Manach C., Scalbert A., Morand C., Rémésy C., and Jime´nez L. Polyphenols: food sources and bioavailability. Am J Clin Nutr 2004;79(5):727-47 [Abstract]

Preedy V.R. Coffee in health and disease prevention. Academic Press, 2014  [Google eBook]

Zhao Z.,  Moghadasian M.H. Bioavailability of hydroxycinnamates: a brief review of in vivo and in vitro studies. Phytochem Rev 2010;9(1):133-145 [Abstract]

Polyphenols in grapes and wine: chemical composition and biological activities

Polyphenols in Grapes
Fig. 1 – Red Grapes

The consumption of grapes and grape-derived products, particularly red wine but only at meals, has been associated with numerous health benefits, which include, in addition to the antioxidant/antiradical effect, also anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, anticancer, antimicrobial, and neuroprotective activities.
Grapes contain many nutrients such as sugars, vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals. Among the latter, polyphenols are the most important compounds in determining the health effects of the fruit and derived products.
Indeed, grapes are among the fruits with highest content in polyphenols, whose composition is strongly influenced by several factors such as:

  • cultivar;
  • climate;
  • exposure to disease;
  • processing

Nowadays, the main species of grapes cultivated worldwide are: European grapes, Vitis vinifera, North American grapes, Vitis rotundifolia and Vitis labrusca, and French hybrids.
Note: grapes are not a fruit but an infructescence, that is, an ensemble of fruits (berries): the bunch of grapes. In turn, it consists of a peduncle, a rachis, cap stems or pedicels, and berries.

What are polyphenols in grapes and wine?

Polyphenols in red grapes and wine are significantly higher, both in quantity and variety, than in white ones. This, according to many researchers, would be the basis of the more health benefits related to the consumption of red grapes and wine than white grapes and derived products.
Polyphenols in grapes and wine are a complex mixture of flavonoid compounds, the most abundant group, and non-flavonoid compounds.
Among flavonoids, they are found:

Among non-flavonoid polyphenols:

Most of the flavonoids present in wine derive from the epidermal layer of the berry skin, while 60-70% of the total polyphenols are present in the grape seeds. It should be noted that more than 70% of grape polyphenols are not extracted and remain in the pomace.
The complex chemical interactions that occur between these compounds, and between them and the other compounds of different nature present in grapes and wine, are probably essential in determining both the quality of the grapes and wine and the broad spectrum of therapeutic effects of these foods.
In wine, the mixture of polyphenols play important functions being able to influence:

  • bitterness;
  • astringency;
  • red color, of which they are among the main responsible;
  • sensitivity to oxidation, being molecules easily oxidizable by atmospheric oxygen.

Finally, they act as preservatives and are the basis of long aging.

Polyphenols in grapes and wine: anthocyanins

They are flavonoids widely distributed in fruits and vegetables.
They are primarily located in the berry skin (in the outer layers of the hypodermal tissue), to which they confer color, having a hue that varies from red to blue. In some varieties, called “teinturier”, they also accumulate in the flesh of the berry.
There is a close relationship between berry development and the biosynthesis of anthocyanins. The synthesis starts at veraison (when the berry stops growing and changes its color), causes a color change of the berry that turns purple, and reaches the maximum levels at complete ripening.
Among wine flavonoids, they are one of the most potent antioxidants.
Each grape species and cultivars has a unique composition of anthocyanins. Moreover, in grapes of Vitis vinifera, due to a mutation in the gene coding for 5-O-glucosyltransferase, mutation that determines the synthesis of an inactive enzyme, only 3-monoglucoside derivatives are synthesized, while in other species  the glycosylation at position 5 also occurs. Interestingly, 3-monoglucoside derivatives are more intensely colored than 3,5-diglucoside derivatives.

Polyphenols in Grapes
Fig. 2 – Malvidin-3-glucoside

In red grapes and wine, the most abundant anthocyanins are the 3-monoglucosides of malvidin (the most abundant one both in grapes and wine), petunidin, delphinidin, peonidin, and cyanidin. In turn, the hydroxyl group at position 6 of the glucose can be acylated with an acetyl, caffeic or coumaric group, acylation that further enhances the stability.
Anthocyanidins, namely the non-conjugated molecules, are not present in grapes and in wine, except as traces.
Anthocyanins are scarcely present in white grapes and wine.
The composition of anthocyanins in wine is highly influenced both by the type of cultivar and by processing techniques, since they are present in wine as a result of extraction by maceration/fermentation processes. For this reason, wines deriving from similar varieties of grapes can have very different anthocyanin compositions.
Together with proanthocyanidins, they are the most important polyphenols in contributing to some organoleptic properties of red wine, as they are primarily responsible for astringency, bitterness, chemical stability against oxidation, as well as of the color of the young wine. In this regard, it should be underscored that with time their concentration decreases, while the color is due more and more to the formation of polymeric pigments produced by condensation of anthocyanins both among themselves and with other molecules.
During wine aging, proanthocyanidins and anthocyanins react to produce more complex molecules that can  partially precipitate.

Polyphenols in grapes and wine: flavanols or catechins

Polyphenols in Grapes
Fig. 3 – Catechin

They are, together with condensed tannins, the most abundant flavonoids, representing up to 50% of the total polyphenols in white grapes and between 13% and 30% in red ones.
Their levels in wine depend on the type of cultivar.
Typically, the most abundant flavanol in wine is catechin, but epicatechin and epicatechin-3-gallate are also present.

Polyphenols of grapes and wine: proanthocyanidins or condensed tannins

Polyphenols in Grapes
Fig. 4 – Procyanidin C1

Composed of catechin monomers, they are present in the berry skin, seeds and rachis of the bunch of grapes as:

  • dimers: the most common are procyanidins B1-B4, but also procyanidins B5-B8 can be present;
  • trimers: procyanidin C1 is the most abundant;
  • tetramers;
  • polymers, containing up to 8 monomers.

Their levels in wine depend on the type of grape varieties and wine-making technology, and, like anthocyanins, are much more abundant in red wines, in particular in aged wines, compared to white ones.
In addition, as previously said, together with anthocyanins, condensed tannins are important in determining some organoleptic properties of the wine.

Polyphenols of grapes and wine: flavonols

They are present in a large variety of fruit and vegetables, even if in low concentrations.
They are the third most abundant group of flavonoids in grapes, after proanthocyanidins and catechins.
They are mainly present in the outer epidermis of the berry skin, where they play a role both in providing protection against UV-A and UV-B radiations and in copigmentation together with anthocyanins.
Flavanol synthesis begins in the sprout; the highest concentration is reached a few weeks after veraison, then it decreases as the berry increases in size.
Their total amount is very variable, with the red varieties often richer than the white ones.
In grapes, they are present as 3-glucosides and their composition depends on the type of grapes and cultivar:

  • the derivatives of quercetin, kaempferol and isorhamnetin are found in white grapes;
  • the derivatives of myricetin, laricitrin and syringetin are found, together with the previous ones, only in red grapes, due to the lack of expression in white grapes of the gene coding for flavonoid-3′,5′-hydroxylase.
Polyphenols in Grapes
Fig. 5 – Quercetin-3-glucoside

In general, the 3-glucosides and 3-glucuronides of quercetin are the major flavonols in most of the grape varieties. Conversely, quercetin-3-rhamnoside and quercetin aglycone are the major flavonols in muscadine grapes.
In wine and grape juice, unlike grapes, they are also found as aglycones, as a result of the acid hydrolysis that occurs during processing and storage. They are present in wine in a variable amount, and the major molecules are the glycosides of quercetin and myricetin, which alone represent 20-50% of the total flavonols in red wine.

Polyphenols in grapes and wine: hydroxycinnamates

Polyphenols in Grapes
Fig. 6 – Ferulic Acid

Hydroxycinnamic acids are the main class of non-flavonoid polyphenols in grapes and the major polyphenols in white wine.
The most important are p-coumaric, caffeic, sinapic, and ferulic acids, present in wine as esters with tartaric acid.
They have antioxidant activity and in some white varieties of Vitis vinifera, together with flavonols, are the polyphenols mainly responsible for absorbing UV radiation in the berry.

Polyphenols in grapes and wine: stilbenes

Polyphenols in Grapes
Fig. 7 – trans-Resveratrol

They are phytoalexins which are produced in low concentrations only by a few edible species, including grapevine (on the contrary, flavonoids are present in all higher plants).
Together with the other polyphenols in grapes and wine, also stilbenes, particularly resveratrol, have been associated with health benefits resulting from the consumption of wine.
Their content increases from the veraison to the ripening of the berry, and is influenced by the type of cultivar, climate, wine-making technology, and fungal pressure.
The main stilbenes present in grapes and wine are:

  • cis- and trans-resveratrol (3,5,4′-trihydroxystilbene);
  • piceid or resveratrol-3-glucopyranoside and astringin or 3′-hydroxy-trans-piceid;
  • piceatannol;
  • dimers and oligomers of resveratrol, called viniferins, of which the most important are:

α-viniferin, a trimer;
β-viniferin, a cyclic tetramer;
γ-viniferin, a highly polymerized oligomer;
ε-viniferin, a cyclic dimer.

In grapes, other glycosylated and isomeric forms of resveratrol and piceatannol, such as resveratroloside, hopeaphenol, or resveratrol di- and tri-glucoside derivatives, have been found in trace amounts.
Glycosylation of stilbenes is important for the modulation of antifungal activity, protection from oxidative degradation, and storage of the wine.
The synthesis of dimers and oligomers of resveratrol, both in grapes and wine, represents a defense mechanism against exogenous attacks or, on the contrary, the result of the action of extracellular enzymes released from pathogens in an attempt to eliminate undesirable compounds.

Polyphenols in grapes and wine: hydroxybenzoates

Polyphenols in Grapes
Fig. 8 – Gallic Acid

The hydroxybenzoic acid derivatives are a minor component in grapes and wine.
In grapes, gentisic, gallic, p-hydroxybenzoic and protocatechuic acids are the main ones.
Unlike hydroxycinnamates, which are present in wine as esters with tartaric acid, they are found in their free form.
Together with flavonols, proanthocyanidins, catechins, and hydroxycinnamates they are among the responsible of astringency of wine.


Andersen Ø.M., Markham K.R. Flavonoids: chemistry, biochemistry, and applications. CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group, 2006

Basli A, Soulet S., Chaher N., Mérillon J.M., Chibane M., Monti J.P.,1 and Richard T. Wine polyphenols: potential agents in neuroprotection. Oxid Med Cell Longev 2012 [Abstract]

de la Rosa L.A., Alvarez-Parrilla E., Gonzàlez-Aguilar G.A. Fruit and vegetable phytochemicals: chemistry, nutritional value, and stability. 1th Edition. Wiley J. & Sons, Inc., Publication, 2010

Flamini R., Mattivi F.,  De Rosso M., Arapitsas P. and Bavaresco L. Advanced knowledge of three important classes of grape phenolics: anthocyanins, stilbenes and flavonols. Int J Mol Sci 2013;14:19651-19669 [Abstract]

Georgiev V., Ananga A. and Tsolova V. Recent advances and uses of grape flavonoids as nutraceuticals. Nutrients 2014;6: 391-415 [Abstract]

Guilford J.M. and Pezzuto J.M. Wine and health: a review. Am J Enol Vitic 2011;62(4):471-486 [Abstract]

He S., Sun C. and Pan Y. Red wine polyphenols for cancer prevention. Int J Mol Sci 2008;9:842-853 [Abstract]

Xia E-Q., Deng G-F., Guo Y-J. and Li H-B. Biological activities of polyphenols from grapes. Int J Mol Sci 2010;11-622-646

Waterhouse A.L. Wine phenolics. Ann N Y Acad Sci 2002;957:21-36 [Abstract]

Polyphenols in olive oil: variability and chemical composition

Polyphenols in olive oil: influences of environment and extraction process

Polyphenols in Olive Oil
Fig. 1 – Olives

Olive oil, which is obtained from the pressing of the olives, the fruits of olive tree (Olea europaea), is the main source of fat in the Mediterranean diet, and a good source of polyphenols.
Polyphenols, natural antioxidants, are present in olive pulp and, following pressing, they pass into the oil.
Note: olives are also known as drupes or stone fruits.
The concentration of polyphenols in olive oil is the result of a complex interaction between various factors, both environmental and linked to the extraction process of the oil itself, such as:

  • the place of cultivation;
  • the cultivars (variety);
  • the level of ripeness of the olives at the time of harvesting.
    Their level usually decreases with over-ripening of the olives, although there are exceptions to this rule. For example, in  warmer climates, olives produce oils richer in polyphenols, in spite of their faster maturation.
  • the climate;
  • the extraction process. In this regard, it is to underscore that the content of polyphenol in refined olive oil is not significant.

Any variation of the concentration of different polyphenols influence the taste, nutritional properties and stability of olive oil. For example, hydroxytyrosol and oleuropein (see below) give extra virgin olive oil a pungent and bitter taste.

Key polyphenols in olive oil

Among polyphenols in olive oil, there are  molecules with simple structure, such as phenolic acids and alcohols, and molecules with complex structure, such as flavonoids, secoiridoids, and lignans.


Flavonoids include glycosides of flavonols (rutin, also known as quercetin-3-rutinoside), flavones (luteolin-7-glucoside), and anthocyanins (glycosides of delphinidin).

Phenolic acids and phenolic alcohols

Among phenolic acids, the first polyphenols with simple structure observed in olive oil, they are found:

  • hydroxybenzoic acids, such as, gallic, protocatechuic, and 4-hydroxybenzoic acids (all with C6-C1 structure).
  • hydroxycinnamic acids, such as  caffeic, vanillin, syringic, p-coumaric, and o-coumaric acids (all with C6-C3 structure).

Among phenolic alcohols, the most abundant are hydroxytyrosol (also known as  3,4-dihydroxyphenyl-ethanol), and tyrosol [also known as 2-(4-hydroxyphenyl)-ethanol].


Polyphenols in olive oil
Fig. 2 – Hydroxytyrosol

Hydroxytyrosol can be present as:

  • simple phenol;
  • phenol esterified with elenolic acid, forming oleuropein and its aglycone;
  • part of the molecule verbascoside.

It can also be present in different glycosidic forms, depending on the –OH group to which the glucoside, i.e. elenolic acid plus glucose, is bound.
It is one of the main polyphenols in olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, and olive vegetable water.
In nature, its concentration, such as that of tyrosol, increases during fruit ripening, in parallel with the hydrolysis of compounds with higher molecular weight, while the total content of phenolic molecules and alpha-tocopherol decreases. Therefore, it can be considered as an indicator of the degree of ripeness of the olives.
In fresh extra virgin olive oil, hydroxytyrosol is mostly present in esterified form, while in time, due to hydrolysis reactions, the non-esterified form becomes the predominant one.
Finally, the concentration of hydroxytyrosol is correlated with the stability of olive oil.


They are the polyphenols in olive oil with the more complex structure, and are produced from the secondary metabolism of terpenes.
They are glycosylated compounds and are characterized by the presence of elenolic acid in their structure (both in its aglyconic or glucosidic form). Elenolic acid is the molecule common to glycosidic secoiridoids of Oleaceae.
Unlike tocopherols, flavonoids, phenolic acids, and phenolic alcohols, that are found in many fruits and vegetables belonging to different botanical families, secoiridoids are present only in plants of the Oleaceae family.
Oleuropein, demethyloleuropein, ligstroside, and nuzenide are the main secoiridoids.
In particular, oleuropein and demethyloleuropein (as verbascoside) are abundant in the pulp, but they are also found in other parts of the fruit. Nuzenide is only present in the seeds.


Polyphenols in Olive Oil
Fig. 3 – Oleuropein

Oleuropein, the ester of hydroxytyrosol and elenolic acid, is the most important secoiridoid, and the main olive oil polyphenol.
It is present in very high quantities in olive leaves, as also in all the constituent parts of the olive, including peel, pulp and kernel.
Oleuropein accumulates in olives during the growth phase, up to 14% of the net weight; when the fruit turns greener, its quantity reduces. Finally, when the olives turns dark brown, color due to the presence of anthocyanins, the reduction in its concentration becomes more evident.
It was also shown that its content is greater in green cultivars than in black ones.
During the reduction of oleuropein levels (and of the levels of other secoiridoids), an increase of compounds such as flavonoids, verbascosides, and simple phenols can be observed.
The reduction of its content is also accompanied by an increase in its secondary glycosylated products, that reach the highest values in black olives.


Polyphenols in olive oil
Fig. 4 – Lignans

Lignans, in particular (+)-1- acetoxypinoresinol and (+)-pinoresinol, are another group of polyphenols in olive oil.
(+)-pinoresinol is a common molecule in the lignin fraction of many plants, such as sesame (Sesamun indicum) and the seeds of the species Forsythia, belonging to the family Oleaceae. It has been also found in the olive kernel.
(+)-1- acetoxypinoresinol and (+)-1-hydroxypinoresinol, and their glycosides, have been found in the bark of the olive tree.
Lignans are not present in the pericarp of the olives, nor in leaves and sprigs that may accidentally be pressed with the olives.
Therefore, how  they can pass into the olive oil becoming one of the main phenolic fractions is not yet known.
(+)-1- acetoxypinoresinol and (+)-pinoresinol are absent in seed oils, are virtually absent from refined virgin olive oil, while they may reach a concentration of 100 mg/kg in extra-virgin olive oil.
As seen for simple phenols and secoiridoids, there is considerable variation in their concentration among olive oils of various origin, variability probably related to differences between olive varieties,  production areas, climate, and oil production techniques.


Cicerale S., Lucas L. and Keast R. Biological activities of phenolic compounds present in virgin olive oil. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2010;11: 458-479 [Abstract]

de la Rosa L.A., Alvarez-Parrilla E., Gonzàlez-Aguilar G.A. Fruit and vegetable phytochemicals: chemistry, nutritional value, and stability. 1th Edition. Wiley J. & Sons, Inc., Publication, 2010

Manach C., Scalbert A., Morand C., Rémésy C., and Jime´nez L. Polyphenols: food sources and bioavailability. Am J Clin Nutr 2004;79(5):727-47 [Abstract]

Owen R.W., Mier W., Giacosa A., Hull W.E., Spiegelhalder B. and Bartsch H. Identification of lignans as major components in the phenolic fraction. Clin Chem 2000;46:976-988 [Abstract]

Tripoli E., Giammanco M., Tabacchi G., Di Majo D., Giammanco S. and La Guardia M. The phenolic compounds of olive oil: structure, biological activity and beneficial effects on human health. Nutr Res Rev 2005:18;98-112 2005:18;98-112 [Abstract]

Weight loss and green tea: myth and legend

Green tea: a fat burning food for weight loss?

In the phase of weight loss, as during weight maintenance, it is important to maintain as constant as possible the daily energy expenditure.
Indeed, daily caloric consumption usually decreases during weight loss.
Since the 90s of last century, it has been proposed that green tea, thanks to  its content of caffeine and catechins, particularly epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which are also present in oolong tea and white tea, could be of help for:

  • maintaining , or even increasing, the daily energy expenditure;
  • increasing fat oxidation, thus acting as a fat-burning food.
Weight Loss and Green Tea
Fig. 1 – Waist Circumference

Therefore, it was attributed to green tea the ability to cause a fat loss, and so to be of help for overweight or obese adults in achieving the ideal weight.
In addition to these potential lipolytic and thermogenic effects, catechins and caffeine may be useful by acting on other targets, such as the intestinal absorption of fat and the energy intake, probably through their impact on the gut microbiota and gene expression.
Therefore, products for weight loss and weight maintenance based on green tea extracts have been marketed. It should be noted that these products contain catechins and caffeine in amount much greater than the classic drink.

How much truth is there in green tea “fat burning” properties?

The issue seems to have been resolved by a careful meta-analysis of 15 studies on weight loss and intake of these “fat burning” products.
Eight of the 15 analyzed studies were conducted in Japan, and the rest outside of Japan, for a total number of 1945 subjects, which were followed for a period of between 12 and 13 weeks.
The study showed that the consumption of green tea-based products induces, in overweight and obese adults, a weight loss that is:

  • not statistically significant;
  • very small;
  • probably not clinically important.

These “fat burning” products have not proved to be useful not even in weight maintenance.
Thus, on the basis of scientific evidence, green tea does not seem to be helpful in fat loss nor in weight maintenance.
There are no magic bullets: the only way to lose weight (body fat) and avoid future increases is to control your daily calorie intake and take part in physical activity on a regular basis.


Hursel R. and Westerterp-Plantenga M.S. Catechin- and caffeine-rich teas for control of body weight in humans. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;98:1682S-1693S [Abstract]

Hursel R., Viechtbauer W. and Westerterp-Plantenga M.S. The effects of green tea on weight loss and weight maintenance: a meta-analysis. Int J Obesity 2009;33:956-961 [Full text]

Jurgens T.M., Whelan A.M., Killian L., Doucette S., Kirk S., Foy E. Green tea for weight loss and weight maintenance in overweight or obese adults. Editorial group: Cochrane Metabolic and Endocrine Disorders Group. 2012:12 Art. No.: CD008650 [Abstract]

Black tea: definition, processing and polyphenols

What is black tea?

Black tea, like the other types of tea, is an infusion of processed leaves of Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, a shrub that belongs to the Theaceae family.
Black tea, a type of fully fermented tea, is the most consumed tea worldwide, accounting for about 78% of the consumed tea. It is preferred by Western populations, while the favorite tea in Asia, particularly in Japan and China, is green tea.

“Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world.”
T’ien Yiheng

Processing of black tea

The processing of the leaves of Camellia sinensins, that leads to the production of black tea, proceeds through three main steps:

  • withering or drying;
  • rolling;
  • oxidation

The last step, oxidation, gives black tea the specific organoleptic characteristics and composition in polyphenols, that are extremely different from those of green tea (green tea undergoes very slight oxidative processes during processing).

Withering or drying

Black Tea: Withering or Drying  of Tea Leaves
Fig. 1 – Withering or Drying of Tea Leaves

The withering or drying step is the first, and most basic process during processing of black tea. In this step, water in the leaves is removed (about 75% of the leaf’s weight is made up of water), thus determining the concentration of the sap of the leaf itself. The withering also makes the next step easier.
Withering can be achieved in three different ways:

  • exposing leaves to sunlight, that is, sun withering;
  • heating in an appropriate manner the rooms where the leaves are placed;
  • using machines that artificially ventilate the leaves.


The rolling step follows the withering of the leaves. It breaks the leaf tissue, facilitating the outflow of lymph; thus, it promotes the subsequent enzymatic oxidation of polyphenols. This step is essential for the creation of the aroma, color and flavor of black tea.


The oxidation, also improperly called fermentation, is the last stage of black tea processing, and is crucial in determining the quality of the tea. In this step, the enzymatic oxidation of about 90–95 % of the polyphenols occurs, accompanied by other changes that make the green tea leaves into red color.
Temperature (typically 25°C), pH, relative humidity (95% or more), ventilation, and duration are crucial factors too.

Black tea polyphenols

During the oxidation step, the main compounds that undergo oxidation processes, both enzymatic, by polyphenol oxidase, and chemical, by the action of atmospheric oxygen, are:

  • monomeric catechins and gallate catechins;
  • to a lesser extent, the glycosides of catechins, especially myricetin;
  • but also not flavonoids compounds, such as teogallin (ester of gallic acid).

Therefore, throughout the process, a reduction in the concentration of monomeric catechins, characteristics of fresh leaves of Camellia sinensis and green tea, occurs, with the formation of complex polyphenols, such as:

  • thearubigins, red-brown or dark-brown in color;
  • theaflavins and theaflavic acids, red-orange in color.

Thearubigins, polymers of catechins not yet well characterized, are the major polyphenols in black tea, accounting for about 20% of extracted solids. In addition to the reddish color, thearubigins contribute the richness in taste, the so-called “body” to black tea.
Theaflavins, dimers of catechins much better characterized than thearubigins, account for about 3-5% of the solids in black tea infusion. Theaflavins contribute the astringent and brisk taste, as well as the red-orange color of the beverage.
The main theaflavins are:

  • theaflavin digallate;
  • theaflavin-3-gallate;
  • theaflavin-3′-gallate.

Black tea benefits and oxidized polyphenols

Although this type of tea is still able to improve health, oxidative processes suffered from the leaves during the processing attenuate health benefits of black tea, which are instead reported after intake of green tea (particularly, the benefits of green tea are ascribed to its content of catechins, such as EGCG, epicatechin and epicatechin gallate).

Black tea’s caffeine content does not vary significantly.


Asil M.H., Rabiei B., Ansari R.H. Optimal fermentation time and temperature to improve biochemical composition and sensory characteristics of black tea. Aust J Crop Sci 2012;6(3):550-8 [PDF]

Kuhnert N. Unraveling the structure of the black tea thearubigins. Arch Biochem Biophys 2010;501(1):37-51 [Abstract]

Li S., Lo C-Y., Pan M-H., Lai C-S. and Ho C-T. Black tea: chemical analysis and stability. Food Funct 2013;4:10-18 [Abstract]

Menet M-C., Sang S., Yang C.S., Ho C-T., and Rosen R.T. Analysis of theaflavins and thearubigins from black tea extract by MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry. J Agric Food Chem 2004;52:2455-61 [Abstract]

Sharma V.K., Bhattacharya A., Kumar A. and Sharma H.K. Health benefits of tea consumption. Trop J Pharm Res 2007;6(3):785-792 [Abstract]

Green tea: definition, processing, properties, polyphenols

What is green tea?

Green tea is an infusion of processed leaves of tea plant, Camellia sinensis, a member of the Theaceae family.
It is the most consumed beverages in Asia, particularly in China and Japan.
Western populations consume black tea more frequently than green tea. However, in recent years, thanks to its health benefits, it has been gaining their attention.
Currently, it accounts for 20% of the tea consumed worldwide.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”C.S. Lewis

Processing and properties of green tea

Green Tea
Fig. 1 – Camellia sinensis

As all other types of tea, it is produced from fresh leaves of Camellia sinensis.
The peculiar properties of the beverage depend on the type of processing that the leaves undergo. In fact, they are processed in such a way as to minimize both enzymatic and chemical oxidation processes of the substances contained in them, in particular catechins.
Therefore, among the different types of tea, it undergoes the lowest degree of oxidation during processing.
At the end of the processing, tea leaves retain their green color, thanks to the little chemical modifications/oxidations they have undergone. The infusion shows off a yellow-gold color.
Finally, the processing of tea leaves ensures that green tea flavor is more delicate and lighter than black tea.

The three main steps in the processing of green tea

After harvesting, tea leaves are exposed to the sun for 2-3 hours and withered/dried; then, the real processing starts.
It consists of three main steps: heat treatment, rolling and drying.

Heat treatment

Heat treatment, short and gentle, is the crucial step for the quality and properties of the beverage.
It occurs with steam (the traditional Japanese method) or by dry cooking in hot pans (a large wok, the traditional Chinese method). Heat treatment has the purpose of:

  • inactivate the enzymes present in the tissues of the leaves, thus stopping enzymatic oxidation processes, particularly of polyphenols;
  • eliminate the grassy smell in order to stand out tea flavor;
  • evaporate part of the water present in the fresh leaf (water constitutes about 75% of the weight of the leaf), making it softer, so as to make the next step easier.


The rolling step follows the heat treatment of the leaves; this step has the purpose of:

  • facilitate the next stage of drying;
  • destroy the tissues of the leaves in order to favor, later, the release of aromas, thus improving the quality of the product.


The drying is the last step, which also leads to the production of new compounds and improves the appearance of the product.

Green tea polyphenols

Gree Tea
Fig. 2 – EGCG

All types of tea are rich in polyphenols, compounds that are also present in fruits, vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, and red wine.
Fresh tea leaves are rich in water-soluble polyphenols, especially catechins (or flavanols) and glycosylated catechins (both belonging to the class of flavonoids), molecules which are believed to be the responsibles of the benefits of green tea.
The major catechins in green tea are epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), epigallocatechin, epicatechin-3-gallate, epicatechin, epicatechin, but also catechin, gallocatechin, catechin gallate, and gallocatechin gallate are present, even if in lower amount. These polyphenols account for 30%-42% of the dry leaf weight (but only 3%–10% of the solid content of black tea).
Green tea caffeine accounts for 1,5-4,5% of the dry leaf weight.

How to maximize the absorption of green tea catechins

In vitro studies have shown the high antioxidant power of catechins, greater than that of vitamin C and vitamin E. In vitro, EGCG is generally considered the most biologically active catechin.
In vivo studies and several epidemiologic studies have shown the possible preventive effects of green tea catechins, especially EGCG, in preventing the development of:

  • cardiovascular disease, such as hypertension and stroke;
  • some cancers, such as lung cancer (but not among smokers) and oral and digestive tract cancers.

For these reasons, it is essential to maximize the intestinal absorption of catechins.
Catechins are stable in acidic environment, but not in non-acidic environment, as in the small intestine; also for this reason, after digestion, less than 20% of the total remains.
Studies with models of the digestive tract of rat and man, that simulate digestion in stomach and small intestine, have shown that the addition of citrus juice or vitamin C to green tea significantly increases the absorption of catechins.
Among tested citrus juices, lemon juice is the best, followed by orange, lime and grapefruit juices. Citrus juices seem to have a stabilizing effect on catechins that goes beyond what would be predicted solely based on their ascorbic acid content.


Clifford M.N., van der Hooft J.J.J., and Crozier A. Human studies on the absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion of tea polyphenols. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;98:1619S-1630S [Abstract]

Dwyer J.T. and Peterson J. Tea and flavonoids: where we are, where to go next. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;98:1611S-1618S [Abstract]

Green R.J., Murphy A.S., Schulz B., Watkins B.A. and Ferruzzi M.G. Common tea formulations modulate in vitro digestive recovery of green tea catechins. Mol Nutr Food Res 2007;51(9):1152-1162 [Abstract]

Huang W-Y., Lin Y-R., Ho R-F., Liu H-Y., and Lin Y-S. Effects of water solutions on extracting green tea leaves. ScientificWorldJournal 2013;Article ID 368350 [Abstract]

Sharma V.K., Bhattacharya A., Kumar A. and Sharma H.K. Health benefits of tea consumption. Trop J Pharm Res 2007;6(3):785-792 [Abstract]

Anthocyanins: foods, absorption, metabolism

Anthocyanin rich foods

Fig. 1 – Red Cherries

Together with catechins and proanthocyanidins, anthocyanins and their oxidation products are the most abundant flavonoids in the human diet.
They are found in:

  • certain varieties of grains, such as some types of pigmented rice (e.g. black rice) and maize (purple corn);
  • in certain varieties of root and leafy vegetables such as aubergine, red cabbage, red onions and radishes, beans;
  • but especially in red fruits.

They are also present in red wine; as the wine ages, they are transformed into various complex molecules.
Anthocyanin content in vegetables and fruits is generally proportional to their color: it increases during maturation, and it reaches values up to 4 g/kg fresh weight (FW) in cranberries and black currants.
These polyphenols are found primarily in the skin, except for some red fruits, such as cherries and red berries (e.g. strawberries), in which they are present both in the skin and flesh.
Glycosides of cyanidin are the most common anthocyanins in foods.

Anthocyanins in fruits

  • Berries are the main source of anthocyanins, with values ranging between 67 and 950 mg/100 g FW.
  • Other fruits, such as red grapes, cherries and plums, have content ranging between 2 and 150 mg/100 g FW.
  • Finally, in fruits such as nectarines, peaches, and some types of apples and pears, anthocyanins are poorly present, with a content of less than 10 mg/100 g FW.

Cranberries, besides their very high content of anthocyanins, are one of the rare food that contain glycosides of the six most commonly anthocyanidins present in foods: pelargonidin, delphinidin, cyanidin, petunidin, peonidin, and malvidin. The main anthocyanins are the 3-O-arabinosides and 3-O-galactosides of peonidin and cyanidin. A total of 13 anthocyanins have been detected, mainly 3-O-monoglycosides.

Intestinal absorption of anthocyanins

Until recently, it was believed that anthocyanins, together with proanthocyanidins and gallic acid ester derivatives of catechins, were the least well-absorbed polyphenols, with a time of appearance in the plasma consistent with the absorption in the stomach and small intestine. Indeed, some studies have shown that their bioavailability has been underestimated since, probably, all of their metabolites have not been yet identified.
In this regard, it should be underlined that only a small part of the food anthocyanins is absorbed in their glycated forms or as hydrolysis products in which the sugar moiety has been removed. Therefore, a large amount of these ingested polyphenols enters the colon, where they can also suffer methylation, sulphatation, glucuronidation and oxidation reactions.

Anthocyanins and colonic microbiota

Few studies have examined the metabolism of anthocyanins by the colonic microbiota.
Within two hours, it seems that all the anthocyanins lose their sugar moieties, thus producing anthocyanidins.
Anthocyanidins are chemically unstable in the neutral pH of the colon. They can be metabolized by colonic microbiota or chemically degraded producing a set of new molecules that have not yet fully identified, but which include phenolic acids such as gallic acid, syringic acid, protocatechuic acid, vanillic acid and phloroglucinol (1,3,5-trihydroxybenzene). These molecules, thanks to their higher microbial and chemical stability, might be the main responsible for the antioxidant activities and the other physiological effects that have been observed in vivo and attributed to anthocyanins.


de la Rosa L.A., Alvarez-Parrilla E., Gonzàlez-Aguilar G.A. Fruit and vegetable phytochemicals: chemistry, nutritional value, and stability. 1th Edition. Wiley J. & Sons, Inc., Publication, 2010

de Pascual-Teresa S., Moreno D.A. and García-Viguera C. Flavanols and anthocyanins in cardiovascular health: a review of current evidence. Int J Mol Sci 2010;11:1679-1703 [Abstract]

Escribano-Bailòn M.T., Santos-Buelga C., Rivas-Gonzalo J.C. Anthocyanins in cereals. J Chromatogr A 2004:1054;129-141 [Abstract]

Han X., Shen T. and Lou H. Dietary polyphenols and their biological significance. Int J Mol Sci 2007;9:950-988 [Abstract]

Manach C., Scalbert A., Morand C., Rémésy C., and Jime´nez L. Polyphenols: food sources and bioavailability. Am J Clin Nutr 2004;79(5):727-47 [Abstract]

Tsao R. Chemistry and biochemistry of dietary polyphenols. Nutrients 2010;2:1231-1246 [Abstract]

Tea polyphenols: bioactive compounds from leaves of tea plant

Tea polyphenols: from the leaf to the cup

Tea Polyphenols
Fig. 1 – Camellia sinensis

The leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, and tea are rich in bioactive compounds.
More than 4000 molecules have been found in the beverage.
Approximately one third of these compounds are polyphenols, the most important molecules in determining nutritional value and health benefits of the beverage.

Tea is a cup of life.” Anonymus author

Tea polyphenols are mostly flavonoids, such as catechins in green tea (e.g. EGCG), and thearubigins and theaflavins in black tea.
Other bioactive compounds present in tea are:

  • alkaloids, such as caffeine, theophylline and theobromine;
  • amino acids, and among them, theanine (r-glutamylethylamide), that is also a brain neurotransmitter and one of the most important amino acids in green tea;
  • proteins;
  • carbohydrates;
  • chlorophyll;
  • volatile organic molecules, that is, compounds that easily produce vapors and contribute to the odor of the beverage;
  • fluoride, aluminum and trace elements.

These molecules provide the nutritional value of the tea, affecting human health in many ways. Their composition is highly influenced by processing of tea leaves.

Biological activities of polyphenols

Polyphenols, both in vivo and in vitro, have a broad spectrum of biological activities such as:

  • antioxidant properties;
  • reduction of various types of tumors;
  • inhibition of inflammation;
  • protective effects against hyperlipidemia and diabetes.

Therefore, they have a protective role against the development of many diseases.
Thanks to the abundance of tea polyphenols, there has been a growing interest in recent years about the possible preventive effects of beverage against several diseases, particularly cardiovascular disease, for example in the development and progression of atherosclerosis.

Mechanisms of action of tea polyphenols

Currently, there is limited information on how tea polyphenols exert their effects at cellular level.
It seems, at least in vitro, that catechins in green tea, and theaflavins and thearubigins in black tea are the bioactive compounds responsible for the physiological effects and health benefits of tea.
And among the observed mechanisms by which tea polyphenols act at the cellular level, in addition to the antioxidant effect, it has been observed, as a consequence of polyphenol binding to specific receptors on the cell membrane, changes in the activity of various protein kinases, and growth and transcriptional factors.
Moreover, it seems that these molecules, or at least EGCG, may enter the cell and directly interact with their intracellular specific targets.


Dwyer J.T. and Peterson J. Tea and flavonoids: where we are, where to go next. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;98:1611S-1618S [Abstract]

Grassi D., Desideri G., Di Giosia P., De Feo M., Fellini E., Cheli P., Ferri L., and Ferri C. Tea, flavonoids, and cardiovascular health: endothelial protection. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;98:1660S-1666S [Abstract]

Lambert J.D. Does tea prevent cancer? Evidence from laboratory and human intervention studies. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;98:1667S-1675S [Abstract]

Lenore Arab L., Khan F., and Lam H. Tea consumption and cardiovascular disease risk. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;98:1651S-1659S [Abstract]

Lorenz M. Cellular targets for the beneficial actions of tea polyphenols. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;98:1642S-1650S [Abstract]

Sharma V.K., Bhattacharya A., Kumar A. and Sharma H.K. Health benefits of tea consumption. Trop J Pharm Res 2007;6(3):785-792 [Abstract]

Yuan J-M. Cancer prevention by green tea: evidence from epidemiologic studies. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;98:1676S-1681S [Abstract]