Flavonoids: gifts from the Stone Age

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

January 2007

Flavonoids are the nice guys of the nutrition world — colorful, protective and they hang around with pleasing foods like wine and chocolate! Considering how we are bombarded with advice on what not to eat, isn't that a welcome change?

Flavonoids belong to an enormous class of phytonutrients that protect plants and animals from the damaging effects of oxygen. It may be hard to imagine that oxygen can be harmful but that's what turns apple slices brown and copper roofs green. Early life on this planet developed in a hostile, oxygen-rich atmosphere. Too much oxygen is harmful to living things when radiation, pollutants or even the body's own chemical reactions produce free radicals. These short-lived but destructive molecules consist of chemicals, especially oxygen, that have lost an electron. They damage our genetic material and interfere with critical chemical reactions on which life depends. Some theories of aging and cancer formation give free radicals most of the blame.

During millions of years of evolution all life forms developed ways to neutralize free radicals. These antioxidants number in the thousands and are necessary for survival. Early humans evolved with a dietary need for a very large variety of antioxidants, most of them in the form of flavonoids that are present in all fruits and vegetables. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants and so is the mineral, selenium.

The benefits of flavonoids go far beyond their antioxidant properties. They protect us from heart disease and cancer and inhibit inflammation that can be harmful in conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

It's easy to identify flavonoids in the food supply. Just go to the produce department and pick out the most colorful and flavorful things you see. Flavonoids provide the red of raspberries, the purple of grapes and the orange of carrots and papayas. The characteristic flavors of onion, garlic and citrus emanate from flavonoids. It's a pity that the most potent cancer-preventing flavonoids happen to be in the cruciferous vegetables that are the least popular: cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.

On the other hand it's nice to know that we can indulge in our hedonistic habits and still enjoy some health benefits. Red wine, dark chocolate, coffee and green tea are endowed with flavonoids and other nutrients that lower the risk of heart attack, stroke and cancer. For those who don't drink, know that grape juice is nearly as good as red wine. For those chocoholics who indulge primarily in milk or white chocolate, I can't be as encouraging. Processing out the dark color and intense flavor also takes out the flavonoids.

Honey, especially the dark kind, has some flavonoids and other phytonutrients but the high sugar content obviously puts it somewhat farther down the list of food choices.

Fruits and vegetables comprised most of the Stone Age diet until humans developed the tools and the skills to become efficient hunters. A couple of million years of interaction with their environmental food supply made them dependent on a wide variety of ingredients for optimum health. It's folly for us to give up the nutrients that mean so much to our well-being, especially when they are so easy to find.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.