Tag Archives: anthocyanins

Hydroxycinnamic acids: definition, chemical structure, synthesis, foods

Hydroxycinnamic acids: contents in brief

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. doi:10.1007/s11101-009-9145-5

Polyphenols in grapes and wine: chemical composition and biological activities

Polyphenols in grapes and wine: contents in brief

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. doi:10.1155/2012/805762

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. doi:10.3390/ijms141019651

Georgiev V., Ananga A. and Tsolova V. Recent advances and uses of grape flavonoids as nutraceuticals. Nutrients 2014;6: 391-415. doi:10.3390/nu6010391

Guilford J.M. and Pezzuto J.M. Wine and health: a review. Am J Enol Vitic 2011;62(4):471-486. doi:10.5344/ajev.2011.11013

He S., Sun C. and Pan Y. Red wine polyphenols for cancer prevention. Int J Mol Sci 2008;9:842-853. doi:10.3390/ijms9050842

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. doi:10.3390/ijms11020622

Waterhouse A.L. Wine phenolics. Ann N Y Acad Sci 2002;957:21-36. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2002.tb02903.x

Polyphenols in olive oil: variability and chemical composition

Polyphenols in olive oil: contents in brief

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.

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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.

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

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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].

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. doi:10.3390/ijms11020458

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. doi:10.1079/NRR200495

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]

Flavonols: definition, structure, food sources

What are flavonols?

Flavonols are polyphenols belonging to the class of flavonoids.
They are colorless molecules that accumulate mainly in the outer and aerial tissues, therefore skin and leaves, of fruit and vegetables, since their biosynthesis is stimulated by light. They are virtually absent in the flesh.

They are the most common flavonoids in fruit and vegetables, where they are generally present in relatively low concentrations.
Due to their widespread in nature and human diet, they should be taken into consideration when the positive effect on health associated with fruit and vegetable consumption is examined. Their effect is probably related to their ability to:

  • act as antioxidants;
  • act as anti-inflammatory agents;
  • act as anticancer factors;
  • regulate different cellular signaling pathways; an example is the action of quercetin, the most widespread flavonols, on the oxidative stress-induced MAPK activities.

Chemical structure of flavonols

Basic Skeleton of Flavanols
Fig. 1 – 3-hydroxyflavone

Chemically, these molecules differ from many other flavonoids since they have a double bond between positions 2 and 3 and an oxygen (a ketone group) in position 4 of the C ring, like flavones from which, however, they differ in the presence of a hydroxyl group at the position 3. Therefore, flavonol skeleton is a 3-hydroxyflavone.
The 3-hydroxyl group can link a sugar, that is, it can be glycosylated.
Like many other flavonoids, most of them is found in fruit and vegetables, and in plant-derived foods, in glycosylated form. The sugar associated with flavonols is often glucose or rhamnose, but other sugars may also be involved, such as:

  • galactose;
  • arabinose;
  • xylose;
  • glucuronic acid.
Fig. 2 – Flavonols

Flavonol are mainly represented by glycosides of:

  • quercetin;
  • kaempferol;
  • myricetin;
  • isorhamnetin.

The most ubiquitous compounds are glycosylated derivatives of quercetin and kaempferol; in nature, these two molecules have respectively about 280 and 350 different glycosidic combinations.
Finally, it should be underlined that sugar moiety influences flavonol bioavailability.

Foods rich in flavonols

The major sources in human diet are:

  • fruit;
  • vegetables;
  • beverages such as red wine and tea.

In human diet, the richest source are capers, which contain up to 490 mg/100 g fresh weight (FW), but they are also abundant in onions, leeks, broccoli, curly kale, berries (e.g. blueberries), grapes and some herbs and spices, for example dill weed (Anethum graveolens). In these sources, their content ranges between 10 and 100 mg/100 g FW.
Even cocoa, tea, both green and black ones, and red wine are good sources of flavonols. In wine, together with other polyphenols such as catechins, proanthocyanidins and low molecular weight polyphenols, they contribute to the astringency of the beverage.

The main flavonols in foods

The main flavonols in foods, listed in decreasing order of abundance, are quercetin, kaempferol, myricetin and ishoramnetin.


The richest sources of quercetin are capers, followed by onions, asparagus, lettuce and berries; in many other fruit and vegetables, it is present in smaller amounts, between 0.1 and 5 mg/100 g FW.
This flavonol is also present in cocoa and it could be one of its main protective agents against LDL oxidation.
Together with isoflavones, quercetin glycosides are the most well-absorbed polyphenols, followed by flavanones and catechins (on the contrary, gallic acid derivatives of catechins are among the least well absorbed polyphenols, together with anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins).


Typical dietary sources of kaempferol include vegetables, such as spinach, kale and endive, with concentrations between 0.1 and 27 mg/100 g FW, and some spices such as chives, fennel and tarragon, with concentrations between 6.5 and 19 mg/100 g FW.
Fruit is a poor source of the molecule, with content down to 0.1 mg/100 g FW.


Myricetin is the third most abundant flavonol. It is found in some spices, such as oregano, parsley, and fennel, with concentrations between 2 and 20 mg/100 g FW, but also in tea, 0.5-1.6 mg/100 ml, and red wine, 0-9.7 mg/100 ml.
In fruit, it is only found in high concentrations in berries, while in most other fruit and vegetables it is present in a content of less than 0.2 mg/100 g FW.


A fourth flavonol, less abundant than the previous ones, is isorhamnetin. It is only present in some foods such as some spices: chives, 5.0-8.5 mg/100 g FW, fennel, 9.3 mg/100 g FW, tarragon, 5 mg/100 g FW.
In fruit and vegetables it is only present in almonds, with a concentration between 1.2 and 10.3 mg/100 g FW, pears and onions.


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

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]

Anthocyanins: definition, structure and pH

What are anthocyanins?

Anthocyanins are a subgroup of flavonoids, therefore they are polyphenols, which give plants their distinctive colors.
They are water soluble pigments and are present in the vacuolar sap of the epidermal tissues of flowers and fruit.
They are responsible for the colors of the most of the petals, fruits and vegetables, and of some varieties of cereals such as black rice. In fact, they impart red, pink and purple to blue colors to berries, red apples, red grapes, cherries, and of many other fruits, red lettuce, red cabbage, onions or eggplant, but also red wine.
Together with carotenoids, they are responsible for autumn leaf color.
Finally, anthocyanins contribute to attract animals when a fruit is ready to eat or a flower is ready for pollination.

They are bioactive compounds found in plant foods that have a double interest for man:

  • the first one, a technological interest, due to their effects on the organoleptic characteristics of food products;
  • the other due to their healthy properties, being implicated in the protection against cardiovascular risk.
    In fact:

in vitro, they have an antioxidant activity, due to their ability to delocalize electrons and form resonance structures, and a protective role against oxidation of low density lipoproteins (LDL);

like other polyphenols, such as catechins, proanthocyanidins and other uncolored flavonoids, they can regulate different signaling pathways involved in cell growth, differentiation and survival.

Chemical structure of anthocyanins

Basic Skeleton of Anthocyanins
Fig. 1 – 2-phenylbenzopyrilium

The basic chemical structure is flavylium cation (2-phenylbenzopyrilium), which links hydroxyl (-OH) and/or methoxyl (-OCH3) groups, and one or more sugars.
The sugar-free molecule is called anthocyanidins.
Depending on the number and position of hydroxyl and methoxyl groups, various anthocyanidins have been described, and of these, six are commonly found in vegetables and fruits:

  • pelargonidin
  • cyaniding
  • delphinidin
  • petunidin
  • peonidin
  • malvidin

Anthocyanins, as most of the other flavonoids, are present in plants and plant foods in the form of glycosides, that is, linked to one or more sugar units.
The most common sugars present in these natural pigments are:

  • glucose, the most common
  • fructose
  • galactose
  • xylose
  • arabinose
  • rhamnose

The sugars are linked mainly to the C3 position as 3-monoglycosides, to the C3 and C5 positions as diglycosides (with the possible forms: 3-diglycosides, 3,5-diglycosides, and 3-diglycoside-5-monoglycosides). Glycosylations have been also found at C7, C3 ‘and C5’ positions.
The structure of these molecules is further complicated by the bond to the sugar unit of different acyl substituents such as:

  • aliphatic acids, such as acetic, malic, succinic and malonic acid;
  • cinnamic acids (aromatic substituents), such as sinapic, ferulic and p-coumaric acid;
  • finally, there are pigments with both aromatic and aliphatic substituents.
Fig. 2 – Antocyanins

Furthermore, some anthocyanins have several acylated sugars in the molecule; these anthocyanins are sometimes called polyglycosides.

Depending on the type of hydroxylation, methoxylation and glycosylation patterns, and the different substituents linked to the sugar units, more than 500 different anthocyanins have been identified that are based on 31 anthocyanidins. Among these 31 monomers:

  • 30% are from cyanidin;
  • 22% are from delphinidin;
  • 18% are from pelargonidin.

Methylated derivatives of cyanidin, delphinidin and pelargonidin, namely peonidin, malvidin, and petunidin, all together represent 20% of the anthocyanins.
Therefore, up to 90% of the most frequently encountered anthocyanins are related to delphinidin, pelargonidin, cyanidin, and their methylated derivatives.

Anthocyanins and pH

The color of these molecules is influenced by the pH of the vacuole where they are stored, ranging in color from:

  • red, under very acidic conditions;
  • to purple-blue, in intermediate pH conditions;
  • until yellow-green, in alkaline conditions.

In addition to the pH, the color of these flavonoids can be affected by the degree of hydroxylation or methylation pattern of the A and B rings, and by glycosylation pattern.
Finally, the color of certain plant pigments result from complexes between anthocyanins, flavones and metal ions.
It should be noted that anthocyanins are often used as pH indicators thanks to the differences in chemical structure that occur in response to changes in pH.


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]

Ottaviani J.I., Kwik-Uribe C., Keen C.L., and Schroeter H. Intake of dietary procyanidins does not contribute to the pool of circulating flavanols in humans. Am J Clin Nutr 2012;95:851-8 [Abstract]

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

Proanthocyanidins: definition, structure and absorption

What are proanthocyanidins?

Proanthocyanidins or condensed tannins, also calledpycno-genols and leukocyanidins, are polyphenolic compounds (in particular they are a flavonoid subgroup) widely distributed in the plant kingdom, second only to lignin as the most abundant phenol in nature.
They are present in high concentrations in various parts of the plants such as flowers, fruits, berries, seeds (e.g. in grape seeds), and bark (e.g. pine bark).

Together with anthocyanins and their oxidation products, and catechins, they are the most abundant flavonoids in human diet and it has been suggested that they constitute a significant fraction of the polyphenols ingested in the Western diet.
Therefore, condensed tannins should be taken into consideration when the epidemiological association between the intake of polyphenols, especially flavonoids, and chronic diseases are examined.

Chemical structure of proanthocyanidins

Fig. 1 – Procyanidin Skeleton

Condensed tannins have a complex chemical structure being oligomers (dimers to pentamers) or polymers (six or more units, up to 60) of catechins or flavanols, which are joined by carbon-carbon bonds.
They may consist exclusively of:

  • (epi)catechin, and they are named procyanidins;
  • (epi)afzelechin, and they are named propelargonidins;
  • (epi)gallocatechin, and they are named prodelphinidins.

Propelargonidins and prodelphinidins are less common in nature and in foods than procyanidins.

Depending on the bonds between monomers, proanthocyanidins have a:

  • B-type structure, if the polymerization occurs via carbon-carbon bond between the position 8 of the terminal unit and the 4 of the extender (or C4-C6);
  • A-type structure, less frequent, if monomers are doubly linked via an ether bond C2-O-C7 or C2-O-C5 plus a B-type bond.


Fig. 2 – Procyanidins B1-B4

The most common dimers are B-type procyanidins, B1 to B8, formed by catechin or epicatechin; in B1, B2, B3 and B-4 dimers, the two flavanol units are joined by a C4-C8 bond; in B5, B6, B7 and B8 dimers the two units are joined by C4-C6 bond.

Procyanidin C1 is a B-type trimer.

Procyanidin A-2 is an example of A-type procyanidin.

Intestinal absorption of proanthocyanidins

Condensed tannins are poorly absorbed from the intestine; together with anthocyanins and gallic acid ester derivatives of tea catechins, they are the least well-absorbed polyphenols.
It seems that low molecular weight oligomers (2-3 monomers) may be absorbed as such while polymers are not.
In the systemic circulation, dimers reach concentrations of two orders of magnitude lower than those of catechins.
It seems that condensed tannins with a degree of polymerization greater than three transit into the stomach and small intestine without significant modifications, and then, into the large intestine, they are catabolized by colonic microflora, with production of phenylpropionic, phenilvaleric and phenylacetic acids. These degradation products have been suggested to be the major metabolites of proanthocyanidins in healthy humans.

Procyanidins and catechins

It had been proposed that the catabolism of procyanidins in the gastrointestinal tract lead to the release of monomeric catechins, thus indirectly contributing to their systemic pool in humans. In recent years, it has been shown that this does not happen because procyanidins do not significantly contribute to:

  • the concentration of catechin metabolites in the systemic circulation;
  • the total catechin metabolites excreted in the urine;
  • finally, they do not significantly affect plasma metabolite profile derived from catechol-O-methyltransferase activity.

Therefore, analyzing the potential health benefits associated with the intake of foods containing these phytochemicals, catechins and procyanidins should be considered distinct classes of related compounds.


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

Gu L., Kelm M.A., Hammerstone J.F., Beecher G., Holden J., Haytowitz D., Gebhardt S., and Prior R.L. Concentrations of proanthocyanidins in common foods and estimations of normal consumption. J Nutr 2004;134(3):613-617 [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]

Nandakumar V., Singh T., and Katiyar S.K. Multi-targeted prevention and therapy of cancer by proanthocyanidins. Cancer Lett 2008;269(2):378-387 [Abstract]

Ottaviani J.I., Kwik-Uribe C., Keen C.L., and Schroeter H. Intake of dietary procyanidins does not contribute to the pool of circulating flavanols in humans. Am J Clin Nutr 2012;95:851-8 [Abstract]

Santos-Buelga C. and Scalbert A. Proanthocyanidins and tannin-like compounds: nature, occurrence, dietary intake and effects on nutrition and health. J Sci Food Agr 2000;80(7):1094-1117 [Abstract]

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

Wang Y.,Chung S., Song W.O., and Chun O.K. Estimation of daily proanthocyanidin intake and major food sources in the U.S. diet. J Nutr 2011;141(3):447-452 [Abstract]

Flavonoids: definition, structure and classification

What are flavonoids?

Flavonoids are the most abundant polyphenols in human diet, representing about 2/3 of all those ones ingested. Like other phytochemicals, they are the products of secondary metabolism of plants and, currently, it is not possible to determine precisely their number, even if over 4000 have been identified.
In fruits and vegetables, they are usually found in the form of glycosides and sometimes as acylglycosides, while acylated, methylated and sulfate molecules are less frequent and in lower concentrations.
They are water-soluble and accumulate in cell vacuoles.

Chemical structure of flavonoids

Flavonoids: the Skeleton
Fig. 1 – Skeleton of Diphenylpropane

Their basic structure is a skeleton of diphenylpropane, namely, two benzene rings (ring A and B, see figure) linked by a three carbon chain that forms a closed pyran ring (heterocyclic ring containing oxygen, the C ring) with benzenic A ring. Therefore, their structure is also referred to as C6-C3-C6.
In most cases, B ring is attached to position 2 of C ring, but it can also bind in position 3 or 4; this, together with the structural features of the ring B and the patterns of glycosylation and hydroxylation of the three rings, makes the flavonoids one of the larger and more diversified groups of phytochemicals, so not only of polyphenols, in nature.
Their biological activities, for example they are potent antioxidants, depend both on the structural characteristics and the pattern of glycosylation.

Classification of flavonoids

Flavonoids: the Subgroups
Fig. 2 – Flavonoid Subgroups

They can be subdivided into different subgroups depending on the carbon of the C ring on which B ring is attached, and the degree of unsaturation and oxidation of the C ring.
Flavonoids in which B ring is linked in position 3 of the ring C are called isoflavones; those in which B ring is linked in position 4, neoflavonoids, while those in which the B ring is linked in position 2 can be further subdivided into several subgroups on the basis of the structural features of the C ring. These subgroup are: flavones, flavonols, flavanones, flavanonols, flavanols or catechins and anthocyanins.
Finally, flavonoids with open C ring are called chalcones.

  • Flavones
    They have a double bond between positions 2 and 3 and a ketone in position 4 of the C ring. Most flavones of vegetables and fruits has a hydroxyl group in position 5 of the A ring, while the hydroxylation in other positions, for the most part in position 7 of the A ring or 3′ and 4′ of the B ring may vary according to the taxonomic classification of the particular vegetable or fruit.
    Glycosylation occurs primarily on position 5 and 7, methylation and acylation on the hydroxyl groups of the B ring.
    Some flavones, such as nobiletin and tangeretin, are polymethoxylated.
  • Flavonols
    Compared to flavones, they have a hydroxyl group in position 3 of the C ring, which may also be glycosylated. Again, like flavones, flavonols are very diverse in methylation and hydroxylation patterns as well, and, considering the different glycosylation patterns, they are perhaps the most common and largest subgroup of flavonoids in fruits and vegetables. For example, quercetin is present in many plant foods.
  • Flavanones
    Flavanones, also called dihydroflavones, have the C ring saturated; therefore, unlike flavones, the double bond between positions 2 and 3 is saturated and this is the only structural difference between the two subgroups of flavonoids.
    The flavanones can be multi-hydroxylated, and several hydroxyl groups can be glycosylated and/or methylated.
    Some have unique patterns of substitution, for example, furanoflavanones, prenylated flavanones, pyranoflavanones or benzylated flavanones, giving a great number of substituted derivatives.
    Over the past 15 years, the number of flavanones discovered is significantly increased.
  • Flavanonols
    Flavanonols, also called dihydroflavonols, are the 3-hydroxy derivatives of flavanones; they are an highly diversified and multisubstituted subgroup.
  • Isoflavones
    As anticipated, isoflavones are a subgroup of flavonoids in which the B ring is attached to position 3 of the C ring. They have structural similarities to estrogens, such as estradiol, and for this reason they are also called phytoestrogens.
  • Neoflavonoids
    They have the B ring attached to position 4 of the C ring.
  • Flavanols or flavan-3-ols or catechins
    Flavanols are also referred to flavan-3-ols as the hydroxyl group is almost always bound to position 3 of C ring; they are called catechins as well.
    Unlike many flavonoids, there is no double bond between positions 2 and 3. Another distinctive features, e.g. compared to flavanonols, with which they share a hydroxyl group in position 3, is the lack of a carbonyl group, that is, a keto group, in position 4. This particular chemical structure allows flavanols to have two chiral centers in the molecule, on positions 2 and 3, then four possible diastereoisomers. Epicatechin is the isomer with the cis configuration and catechin is the one with the trans configuration. Each of these configurations has two stereoisomers, namely, (+)-epicatechin and (-)-epicatechin, (+)-catechin and (-)-catechin.
    (+)-Catechin and (-)-epicatechin are the two isomers most often present in edible plants.
    Another important feature of flavanols, particularly of catechin and epicatechin, is the ability to form polymers, called proanthocyanidins or condensed tannins. The name “proanthocyanidins” is due to the fact that an acid-catalyzed cleavage produces anthocyanidins.
    Proanthocyanidins typically contain 2 to 60 monomers of flavanols.
    Monomeric and oligomeric flavanols (containing 2 to 7 monomers) are strong antioxidants.
  • Anthocyanidins
    Chemically, anthocyanidins are flavylium cations and are generally present as chloride salts.
    They are the only group of flavonoids that gives plants colors (all other flavonoids are colorless).
    Anthocyanins are glycosides of anthocyanidins. Sugar units are bound mostly to position 3 of the C ring and they are often conjugated with phenolic acids, such as ferulic acid.
    The color of the anthocyanins depends on the pH and also by methylation or acylation at the hydroxyl groups on the A and B rings.
  • Chalcones
    Chalcones and dihydrochalcones are flavonoids with open structure; they are classified as flavonoids because they have similar synthetic pathways.

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

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]

Functions of carotenoids in plants and foods

Through the course of evolution, carotenoids, thank to their unique physical and chemical properties, have proven to be highly versatile molecules, being able to perform many functions in many different organisms, like plants.

Carotenoids in photosynthesis

Carotenoids, in the early stages of the emergence of single-celled photosynthetic organisms, are probably been used for light harvesting at wavelengths different from those covered by chlorophyll. Therefore carotenoids, acting as light absorbing accessory pigments, have allowed to expand the range of solar radiation absorbed and so utilized for photosynthesis, energy that is then transferred to chlorophyll itself.
The major carotenoids involved in light harvesting, that accumulate in green plant tissues, are beta-carotene, lutein, neoxanthin, and violaxanthin, that absorb light energy in the 400- to 500-nm range.
Moreover, they protect chlorophyll from photooxidation (in humans, they may contribute to the protection of photo-oxidative damage caused by UV rays, thus acting as a endogenous photo-protective agents).

Carotenoids and autumn leaf color

Carotenoids and Plants: Autumn Leaf Color
Fig. 1 – Carotenoids and Autumn Leaf Color

Leaf color of deciduous plants in different seasons, green, yellow, orange or red, is due to the presence in them of natural pigments.
In spring and summer, the predominant pigment present in the leaf is chlorophyll, and therefore the color is green.
During the fall, the color changes from green to yellow, orange or red, depending on the type of plant: this is a consequence of the change, both qualitative and quantitative, in the pigment content.
In fact, as a result of the decrease of the temperature and daylight hours, the production of chlorophyll is interrupted and that already present is demolished into colorless metabolites. In this way the predominant pigments become carotenoids (yellow-orange), molecules much more stable than the chlorophyll, which remain in the leaf coloring it (it do not seem to be synthesized de novo), and anthocyanins (red-purple), which, unlike carotenoids, are not present during the growing season, but are synthesized in autumn, just before leaf fall. Therefore, it can be concluded that the red-purple color assumed from the leaves of certain plants is not a side effect of leaf senescence but results from anthocyanins de-novo synthesis.
Depending on the prevalence of carotenoids or anthocyanins, leaf color changes from green to yellow/orange, as in Ginkgo biloba (yellow), or red-purple as in some maples.

And plants with non green leaves?
Their color is not due to the absence of chlorophyll but the presence of very high amounts of other pigments, typically carotenoids and anthocyanins, that “cover” the chlorophyll, determining the color of the leaf.

Some functions of apocarotenoids in plants and foods

These oxygenated carotenoids, containing fewer than 40 carbon atoms, have many functions in plants and animals and are also important for the aroma and flavor of foods.
Some of their main functions include the following.

  • Apocarotenoids have significant roles in the response signals involved in the development and in the response to the environment (for example abscisic acid).
  • They can act as visual or volatile signals to attract pollinators.
  • They are important in the defense mechanisms of plants.
  • They have a role in regulating plant architecture.
  • An apocarotenal, trans-beta-apo-8′-carotenal, found in citrus fruits and spinach, with a low provitamin A activity, is used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, and is also a food additive (E160e) legalized by the European Commission for human consumption.
  • Apocarotenoids make an important contribution to the nutritional quality and flavor of many types of foods such as fruits, wine and tea. Two natural apocarotenoids, crocetin and bixina, have economic importance as they are used as pigments and aroma in foods.
  • Finally, a broad range of apocarotenals derive from oxidative reactions that occur in food processing; these molecules are intermediates in the formation of smaller molecules, important for the color and flavor of the food.

Archetti, M., Döring T.F., Hagen S.B., Hughes N.M., Leather S.R., Lee D.W., Lev-Yadun S., Manetas Y., Ougham H.J. Unravelling the evolution of autumn colours: an interdisciplinary approach. Trends Ecol Evol 2009;24(3):166-73 [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