Tag Archives: extra-virgin olive oil

Chemical composition of olive oil

Chemical composition of olive oil: contents in brief

Olive oil constituents

Olive Oil
Fig. 1 – EVOO

From a chemical point of view, we can identify in the olive oil two fractions, depending on the behavior in the presence of heating and strong alkaline solutions (concentrated solutions of KOH or NaOH):

  • the saponifiable fraction, which represents 98-99% of the total weight, is composed of substances that form soaps in the above conditions;
  • the unsaponifiable fraction, which represents the remaining 1-2% of the total weight, is composed of substances that fail to form soaps in the above conditions.

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Saponifiable fraction of olive oil

It is composed of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, esterified almost entirely to glycerol to form triglycerides (or triacylglycerols). To a much lesser extent, diglycerides (or diacylglycerols), monoglycerides (monoacylglycerols), and free fatty acids are also found.
Unsaturated fatty acids make up 75 to 85% of the total fatty acids. Oleic (O) and linoleic (L) acids are the most abundant ones; palmitoleic, eptadecenoic, gadoleic and alpha-linolenic (Ln) acids are present in lower/trace amounts.

Oleic Acid
Fig. 2 – IOOC and Fatty Acids

Oleic acid is the major fatty acid in olive oils. According to the rules laid down by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), its concentration must range from 55% to 83% of total fatty acids.
Linoleic acid is the most abundant polyunsaturated fatty acid in olive oil; its concentration must vary between 2.5% and 21% (IOOC). Because of its high degree of unsaturation, it is subject to oxidation; this means that an oil high in linoleic acid becomes rancid easily, and thus it may be stored for a shorter time.
In a Mediterranean-type diet, olive oil is the main source of fat: therefore, oleic acid, among monounsaturated fatty acids, and linoleic acid, among polyunsaturated fatty acids, are the most abundant fatty acids.
alpha-Linolenic acid must be present in very low amount, according to the IOOC standards ≤1%. It is an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid, which may have health benefits. However, because of to its high degree of unsaturation (higher than that of linoleic acid), it is very susceptible to oxidation, and therefore it promotes rancidity of the olive oil that contains it.
Saturated fatty acids make up 15 to 25% of the total fatty acids.
Palmitic (P) (7.5-20%) and stearic (S) acids (0.5-5%) are the most abundant saturated fatty acids; myristic, heptadecanoic, arachidic, behenic and lignoceric acids may be present in trace amounts.

The presence of fatty acids that should be absent or present in amounts different than those found is a marker of adulteration with other vegetable oils. On this regard, particular attention is paid to myristic, arachidic, behenic, lignoceric, gadoleic and alpha-linolenic acids, whose limits are set by IOOC.

Fatty acid composition is influenced by several factors.

  • The climate.
  • The latitude.
  • The zone of production.
    Italian, Spanish and Greek olive oils are high in oleic acid and low in palmitic and linoleic acids, while Tunisian olive oils are high in palmitic and linoleic acids but lower in oleic acid. Therefore, oils can be divided into two groups:

one rich in oleic acid and low in palmitic and linoleic acids;
the other high in palmitic and linoleic acids and low in oleic acid.

  • The cultivar.
  • The degree of olive ripeness at the time of oil extraction.
    It should be noted that oleic acid is formed first in the fruit, and data seem to indicate a competitive relationship between oleic acid and palmitic, palmitoleic, and linoleic acids.

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Triglycerides of olive oil

Olive Oil
Fig. 3 – The sn Positions of Triglycerides

As previously said, fatty acids in olive oil are almost entirely present as triglycerides.
In small percentage, they are also present as diglycerides, monoglycerides, and in free form.
During triglyceride biosynthesis, thanks to the presence of specific enzymes, only about 2% of glycerol binds palmitic acid in the sn-2 position (also the percentage of stearic acid in the sn-2 position is very low); for the most part, the sn-2 position is occupied by oleic acid.
On the contrary, if we consider oils that have undergone a nonenzymatic esterification, the percentage of palmitic acid in the sn-2 position increases significantly.
Note: sn = stereospecific numbering

Among triglycerides present in significant proportions in olive oil, there are:

  • OOO: 40-59%;
  • POO: 12-20%;
  • OOL: 12.5-20%;
  • POL:  5.5-7%;
  • SOO: 3- 7%.

POP, POS, OLnL, OLnO, PLL, PLnO are present in smaller amounts.
Trilinolein (LLL) is a triglyceride that contains three molecules of linoleic acid. Its low content is an indicator of an oil of good quality.
Triglycerides containing three saturated fatty acids or three molecules of alpha-linolenic acid have not been reported.

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Diglycerides and monoglycerides of olive oil

Their presence is due to an incomplete synthesis and/or a partial hydrolysis of triglycerides.
The content of diglycerides in virgin olive oil ranges from 1% to 2.8%. 1,2-Diglycerides prevail in fresh olive oil, representing over 80% of the diglycerides. During oil storage, isomerization occurs with a progressive increase of the more stable 1-3 isomers, which after about 10 months become the major isomers.
Therefore, the ratio 1,2/1,3-diglycerides may be used as an indicator of the age of the oil.
Monoglycerides are present in amounts lower than diglycerides, <0.25%, with 1-monoglycerides far more abundant than 2-monoglycerides.

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Unsaponifiable fractions of olive oil

It is composed of a large number of different molecules, very important from a nutritional point of view, as they contribute significantly to the health effects of olive oil.
Furthermore, they are responsible for the stability and the taste of olive oil, and are also used to detect adulteration with other vegetable oils.
This fraction includes tocopherols, sterols, polyphenols, pigments, hydrocarbons, aromatic and aliphatic alcohol, triterpene acids, waxes, and minor constituents.
Their content is influenced by factors similar to those seen for fatty acid composition, such as:

  • the cultivar;
  • the degree of ripeness of the olive;
  • the zone of production;
  • the crop year and olive harvesting practices;
  • the storage time of olives;
  • the oil extraction process;
  • the storage conditions of the oil.

It should be noted that many of these compounds are not present in refined olive oils, as they are removed during the refining processes.

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They make up 18 to 37% of the unsaponifiable fraction.
They are a very heterogeneous group of molecules with nutritional and organoleptic properties  (for example, oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol give oil its bitter and pungent taste).
For a more extensive discussion, see: ” Polyphenols in olive oil: variability and composition.”

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Olive Oil
Fig. 4 – Squalene

They make up 30 to 50% of the unsaponifiable fraction.
Squalene and beta-carotene are the main molecules.
Squalene, isolated for the first time from shark liver, is the major constituent of the unsaponifiable fraction, and constitutes more than 90% of the hydrocarbons. Its concentration ranges from 200 to 7500 mg/kg of olive oil.
It is an intermediate in the biosynthesis of the four-ring structure of steroids, and it seems to be responsible of several health effects of olive oil.
In the hydrocarbon fraction of virgin olive oil, n-paraffins, diterpene and triterpene hydrocarbons, isoprenoidal polyolefins are also found.
Beta-carotene acts both as antioxidant, protecting oil during storage, and as dye (see below).

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They are important lipids of olive oil, and are:

  • linked to many health benefits for consumers;
  • important to the quality of the oil;
  • widely used for checking its genuineness.
    On this regard, it is to underline that sterols are species-specific molecules; for example, the presence of high concentrations of brassicasterol, a sterol typically found in Brassicaceae (Cruciferae) family, such as rapeseed, indicates adulteration of olive oil with canola oil.

Four classes of sterols are present in olive oil: common sterols, 4-methylsterols, triterpene alcohols, and triterpene dialcohols. Their content ranges from 1000 mg/kg, the minimum value required by the IOOC standard, to 2000 mg/kg. The lowest values are found in refined oils because of the refining processes may cause losses up to 25%.

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Common sterols or 4α-desmethylsterols
Olive Oil
Fig. 5 – beta-Sitosterol

Common sterols are present mainly in the free and esterified form; however they have been also found as lipoproteins and sterylglucosides.
The main molecules are beta-sitosterol, which makes up 75 to 90% of the total sterol, Δ5-avenasterol, 5 to  20%, and campesterol, 4%. Other components found in lower amounts or traces are, for example, stigmasterol, 2%, cholesterol, brassicasterol, and ergosterol.

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They are intermediates in the biosynthesis of sterols, and are present both in the free and esterified form. They are present in small amounts, much lower than those of common sterols and triterpene alcohols, varying between 50 and 360 mg/kg. The main molecules are obtusifoliol, cycloeucalenol, citrostadienol, and gramisterol.

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Triterpene alcohols or 4,4-dimethylsterols

They are a complex class of sterols, present both in the free and esterified form. They are found in amounts ranging from 350 to 1500 mg/kg.
The main components are beta-amyrin, 24-methylenecycloartanol, cycloartenol, and butyrospermol; other molecules present in lower/trace amounts are, for example, cyclosadol, cyclobranol, germanicol, and dammaradienol.

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Triterpene dialcohols

The main triterpene dialcohols found in olive oil are erythrodiol and uvaol.
Erythrodiol is present both in the free and esterified form; in virgin olive oil, its level varies between 19 and 69 mg/kg, and the free form is generally lower than 50 mg/kg.

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They make up 2 to 3% of the unsaponifiable fraction, and include vitamin E.
Of the eight E-vitamers, alpha-tocopherol represents about 90% of tocopherols in virgin olive oil. It is present in the free form and in very variable amount, but on average higher than 100 mg/kg of olive oil. Thanks to its in vivo antioxidant properties, its presence is a protective factor for health. Alpha-tocopherol concentration seems to be related to the high levels of chlorophylls and to the concomitant requirement for deactivation of singlet oxygen.
Beta-tocopherol, delta-tocopherol, and gamma-tocopherol are usually present in low amounts.

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In this group we find chlorophylls and carotenoids.
In olive oil, chlorophylls are present as phaeophytins, mainly  phaeophytin a (i.e. a chlorophyll from which magnesium has been removed and substituted with two hydrogen ions), and confer the characteristic green color to olive oil. They are photosensitizer molecules that contribute to the photooxidation of olive oil itself.
Beta-carotene and lutein are the main carotenoids in olive oil. Several xanthophylls are also present, such as antheraxanthin, beta-cryptoxanthin, luteoxanthin, mutatoxanthin, neoxanthin, and violaxanthin.
Olive oil’s color is the result of the presence of chlorophylls and carotenoids and of their green and yellow hues. Their presence is closely related.

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Triterpene acids

They are important components of the olive, and are present in trace amounts in the oil.
Oleanolic and maslinic acids are the main triterpene acids in virgin olive oil: they are present in the olive husk, from which they are extracted in small amount during processing.

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Aliphatic and aromatic alcohols

Fatty alcohols and diterpene alcohols are the most important ones.
Aliphatic alcohols have a number of carbon atoms between 20 and 30, and are located mostly inside the olive stones, from where they are partially extracted by milling.

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Fatty alcohols

They are linear saturated alcohols with more than 16 carbon atoms.
They are found in the free and esterified form and are present, in virgin olive oil, in amount not generally higher than 250 mg/kg.
Docosanol (C22), tetracosanol (C24), hexacosanol (C26), and octacosanol (C28) are the main fatty alcohols in olive oil, with tetracosanol and hexacosanol present in larger amounts.
Waxes, which are minor constituents of olive oil, are esters of fatty alcohols with fatty acids, mainly of palmitic acid and oleic acid. They can be used as a criterion to discriminate between different types of oils; for example, they must be present in virgin and extra virgin olive oil at levels <150 mg/kg, according to the IOOC standards.

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Diterpene alcohols

Geranylgeraniol and phytol are two acyclic diterpene alcohols, present in the free and esterified form. Among esters present in the wax fraction of extra virgin olive oil, oleate, eicosenoate , eicosanoate, docosanoate, and tetracosanoate have been found, mainly as phytyl derivatives.

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Volatile compounds

More than 280 volatile compounds have been identified in olive oil, such as hydrocarbons, the most abundant fraction, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, esters, acids, ethers and many others. However, only about 70 of them are present at levels higher than the perception threshold beyond which they may contribute to the aroma of virgin olive oil.

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Minor components

Phospholipids are found among the minor components of olive oil; the main ones are phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylethanolamine, phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylinositol.
In the unfiltered oils, trace amounts of proteins may be found.

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Gunstone F.D. Vegetable oils in food technology: composition, properties and uses. 2th Edition. Wiley J. & Sons, Inc., Publication, 2011

Pasqualone A., Sikorska E., Gomes T. Influence of the exposure to light on extra virgin olive oil quality during storage. Eur Food Res Technol 2005;221:92-8. doi:10.1007/s00217-004-1126-8

Servili M., Sordini B., Esposto S., Urbani S., Veneziani G., Di Maio I., Selvaggini R. and Taticchi A. Biological activities of phenolic compounds of extra virgin olive oil. Antioxidants 2014;3:1-23. doi:10.3390/antiox3010001

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

Polyphenols: definition, structure and classification

What are polyphenols?

Polyphenols are one of the most important and certainly the most numerous among the groups of phytochemicals present in the plant kingdom.
Currently, over 8000 phenolic structures have been identified, of which more than 4000 belonging to the class of flavonoids, and several hundred occur in edible plants.
However, it is thought that the total content of polyphenols in plants is underestimated as many of the phenolic compounds present in fruits, vegetables and derivatives have not yet been identified, escaping the methods and techniques of analysis used, and the composition in polyphenols for most fruits and some varieties of cereals is not yet known.

They are present in many edible plants, both for men and animals, and it is thought to be their presence, along with that of other molecules such as carotenoids, vitamin C or vitamin E, the responsible for the healthy effects of fruits and vegetables.
In the human diet, they are the most abundant natural antioxidants, and the main sources are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, but also other types of foods and beverages derived from them, such as red wine, rich in resveratrol, the extra virgin olive oil, rich in hydroxytyrosol, chocolate or tea, in particularly green tea, rich in epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG).

Chemical structure of polyphenols

Polyphenols: Phenolic Skeleton
Fig. 1 – Phenol

The term polyphenols refers to a wide variety of molecules that can be divided into many subclasses, subdivisions that can be made on the basis of their origin, biological function, or chemical structure.
Chemically, they are compounds with structural phenolic features, which can be associated with different organic acids and carbohydrates. In plants, the most part of them are linked to sugars, and therefore they are in the form of glycosides. Carbohydrates and organic acids can be bound in different positions on polyphenol skeletons.
Among polyphenols, there are simple molecules, such as phenolic acids, or complex structures such as condensed tannins, that are highly polymerized molecules.

Classification of polyphenols

Polyphenols: Flavonoid Skeleton
Fig. 2 – Flavonoid Skeleton

They can be classified into different classes, according to the number of phenolic rings in their structure, the structural elements that bind these rings each others, and the substituents linked to the rings.
Therefore, two main groups can then be identified: the flavonoids group and the non-flavonoid group.
Flavonoids share a structure formed by two aromatic rings, indicated as A and B, linked together by three carbon atoms forming an oxygenated heterocycle, the C ring; they can be further subdivided into six main subclasses, as a function of the type of heterocycle (the C ring) that is involved:

Non-flavonoids can be subdivided into:

  • simple phenols
  • phenolic acids
  • benzoic aldehydes
  • hydrolyzable tannins
  • acetophenones and phenylacetic acids
  • hydroxycinnamic acids
  • coumarins
  • benzophenones
  • xanthones
  • stilbenes;
  • lignans
  • secoiridoids

Variability of polyphenol content of plant and plant products

Polyphenols: Quercetin
Fig. 3 – Quercetin

Although several classes of phenolic molecules, such as quercetin (a flavonol), are present in most plant foods (tea, wine, cereals, legumes, fruits, fruit juices, etc.), other classes are found only in a particular type of food (e.g. flavanones in citrus, isoflavones in soya, phloridzin in apples, etc.).
However, it is common that different types of polyphenols are in the same product; for example, apples contain flavanols, chlorogenic acid, hydroxycinnamic acids, glycosides of phloretin, glycosides of quercetin and anthocyanins.
The polyphenol composition may also be influenced by other parameters such as environmental factors, the degree of ripeness at harvest time, household or industrial processing, storage, and plant variety. From currently available data, it seems that the fruits with the highest content of polyphenols are strawberries, lychees and grapes, and the vegetables are artichokes, parsley and brussels sprouts. Melons and avocados have the lowest concentrations.


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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]