Phenolic Compounds Deserve Superhero Status

Polyphenols are found in a lot of fruits and vegetables, and they're also present in red wine. . (Photo: Kevin Galens/flickr)

I find myself writing so much more about science than I expected to when I started writing about food and drink. Science seems to sneak into my writing when I'm talking about health benefits, aromas and tastes, especially when I'm writing about alcoholic beverages.

When researchers studied why whisky is more flavorful on the rocks than neat, the answer was chemistry. Water assists whisky's guaiacol molecules, which influence taste and aroma, to rise to the top of the glass instead of hanging down at the bottom of the glass with the alcohol.

Cavitation creates bubbles that become tiny holes ripped into fluid when the fluid is moved violently. Beer makers use this scientific phenomenon in different ways including extracting more flavor from ingredients they infuse into beers like coffee and fruits.

But by far, the scientific term that comes up most often when I'm writing about alcohol is polyphenolic compounds, also referred to as phenolics and polyphenols. Polyphenols are best known as a type of antioxidant. They are found in many foods and are thought to be able to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, inflammation, heart disease and obesity, according to Medical News Today.

The anti-inflammatory properties of polyphenols found in nonalcoholic beer are one of the reasons German Olympians drink alcohol-free beer as part of training and recovery. There is evidence these compounds that are found in wine grapes, especially in red wine grapes, can help improve memory, promote weight loss, protect cells and tissues against harm that lead to diseases like cancer, heart disease and more.

Wine and oral health

smiling, red wine
A new study says polyphenols in red wine may be beneficial to oral health. (Photo: Darren Baker/Shutterstock)

Now these superhero polyphenols are being credited with promoting oral health, according to a recently released study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. In an article titled "Inhibition of Oral Pathogens Adhesion to Human Gingival Fibroblasts by Wine Polyphenols Alone and in Combination with an Oral Probiotic," researchers reported that polyphenols may help fight tooth decay and gum disease.

Polyphenols from red wine were tested along with grape seed and red wine extract supplements to see how they affected bacteria on teeth and gums, BBC explains. Bacteria is a leading cause of plaque, cavities and gum disease. All three reduced the amount the bacteria stuck to teeth and gums, but the red wine polyphenols had the best results. When researchers combined them with an oral probiotic known as Streptococcus denstisani, the polyphenols' effects inhibited the growth of bacteria even further.

With this new information, should we be skipping brushing our teeth before bed and drinking a glass of red wine instead? Of course not.

Before you pour that second glass of wine ...

pouring wine
That wine isn't the only thing that contains polyphenols. (Photo: sirtravelalot/Shutterstock)

It's important to recognize that it's the polyphenols, and not the wine or the beer, that's being credited for all these benefits. These superhero compounds are found in more than alcoholic beverages. Red grapes — the kind you just pop in your mouth — contain them. Popcorn is heavy in polyphenols. Heart healthy oils like olive and avocado are full of them.

Cocoa powder and dark chocolate, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, plums, apples, beans, hazelnuts, almonds, red onions, spinach, soy, and tea are just some of the other common foods that are high in polyphenols.

We would all love to be told that we can drink as much wine as we want because it's super healthy for us, but we know that wine and other alcoholic drinks need be consumed in moderation. But we can be far less moderate with spinach, apples, and beans and get all the benefits.