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Flavonols: definition, structure, food sources

Flavonols: contents in brief

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.

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Chemical structure of flavonols

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.

Basic Skeleton of Flavanols
Fig. 1 – 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.

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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.

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The main flavonols in foods

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. doi:10.3390/i8090950

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;2:1231-46. doi:10.3390/nu2121231

Catechins: definition, structure, green tea, black tea, cocoa

Catechins: contents in brief

What are catechins?

Catechins or flavanols, with flavonols such as quercetin, and flavones such as luteolin, are a subgroup of flavonoids among the most widespread in nature.
Flavanols and proanthocyanidins, together with anthocyanins and their oxidation products, are the most abundant flavonoids in human diet.

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Chemical structure of catechins

Chemically they differ from many other flavonoids as:

  • they lack the double bond between positions 2 and 3 of the C ring;
  • they not have a keto group at position 4;
  • they have a hydroxyl group in position 3, and for this reason they are also called flavan-3-ols.
Fig. 1 – Basic Flavanol Skeleton

Another distinctive feature of flavan-3-ols is their ability to form oligomers (two to ten units) or polymers (eleven or more units, up to 60 units) called proanthocyanidins or condensed tannins.

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Catechins in foods

Fig. 2 – Flavanols

Flavanols commonly found in plant-derived food products are catechin, epicatechin, gallocatechin, epigallocatechin, and their gallic acid ester derivatives: catechin gallate, gallocatechin gallate, epicatechin gallate, and epigallocatechin gallate or EGCG.
Flavanols present with higher frequency are catechin and epicatechin, which are also among the most common known flavonoids, and almost as popular as the related flavonol quercetin.
Cocoa and green tea are by far the richest sources in flavanols. In these foods the main flavonoids are catechin and epicatechin (cocoa is also a good source of epigallocatechin), but also their gallic acid ester derivatives, the gallocatechins.
However, they are also present in many fruits, especially in the skins of apples, blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) and grapes, in vegetables, red wine and beer, and peanuts.
As in many cases flavanols are present in the seeds or peels of fruits and vegetables, their intake may be limited by the fact that these parts are discarded during processing or while eaten.
Furthermore, in contrast to other flavonoids, catechins are not glycosylated in foods.
Proanthocyanidins, that is polymeric flavan-3-ols, are also commonly found in plant-derived food products. Their presence has been reported in the skin of peanuts and almonds, as in the berries.

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Catechins in green and black tea

Green tea is an excellent source of flavonoids. The main flavonoids present in the leaves of the tea (as in cocoa beans) are catechin and epicatechin, monomeric flavanols, together with their gallate derivatives such as EGCG.
Epigallocatechin gallate is the most abundant catechin in green tea and it seems to have an important role in determining green tea benefits, as the reduction of:

  • vascular inflammation;
  • blood pressure;
  • concentration of oxidized LDL.

Black tea (fermented tea) contains fewer monomeric flavanols, as they are oxidized during fermentation of the leaves to more complex polyphenols such as theaflavins (theaflavin digallate, theaflavin-3-gallate, and theaflavin-3′-gallate, all dimers) and thearubigins (polymers).
Theaflavins and thearubigins are present only in the tea; their concentrations in brewed tea are between 50- and 100-folds lesser than in tea leaves.

It should be noted that tea epicatechins are remarkably stable to heat in acidic environment: at pH 5, only about 15% is degraded after seven hours in boiling water (therefore, adding lemon juice to brewed tea does not cause any reduction in their content).

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Catechins in cocoa and cocoa products

Cocoa has the highest content of polyphenols and flavanols per serving, a concentration greater than those found in green tea and red wine. Most of the flavonoids present in cocoa beans and derived products, such as black chocolate, are catechin and epicatechin, monomeric flavanols, but also epigallocatechin, and their derivatives such as the gallocatechins; among polymers, proanthocyanidins are also important.

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Catechins in fruits, vegetables, and legumes

Catechin and epicatechin are the main flavanols in fruits. They are found in many fruits in different concentrations, respectively, between 5-3 and 0.5-6 mg/100 g fresh weight.
On the contrary, gallocatechin, epicatechin gallate, epigallocatechin, and epigallocatechin gallate are present in various fruits such as red grapes, berries, apples, peaches and plums, but in very low concentrations, less than 1mg/100 g fresh weight.
Except for lentils and broad beans, few legumes and vegetables contain catechins, and in very low concentrations, less than 1.5 mg/100 g fresh weight.

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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. doi:10.3390/ijms11041679

Han X., Shen T. and Lou H. Dietary polyphenols and their biological significance. Int J Mol Sci 2007;9:950-988. doi:10.3390/i8090950

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. doi:10.3390/nu2121231