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Released: December 11, 2002

The Nutrient With a Funny Name? Flavonoids Finding Favor in Nutrition

MANHATTAN, Kan. – A food compound with an unusual name is fast becoming a shining star in human nutrition.

Scientists are finding increasing evidence that a diet rich in flavonoids – common in many plant foods – helps decrease the risks of heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, blood cholesterol and other chronic diseases.

Perhaps even better news: most people already are getting an abundance of flavonoids in their diet, and don’t even know it.

"If you’re eating plant foods for vitamins, minerals, fiber, carbohydrates and water, you’re also getting lots of flavonoids," said Barbara Lohse Knous, a nutritionist with Kansas State University Research and Extension.

Among nutritionists, flavonoids are known as a sub-group of polyphenols, or a group of about 6,000 food compounds commonly found in fruits and vegetables, according to Lohse Knous.

The list of foods or other products containing flavonoids is long – grapefruits, oranges, apples, coffee, green tea, onions, red pepper, celery, soy, wheat, and even wine and chocolate, to name a few.

But the number of human foods containing flavonoids and other polyphenols is vast. According to Lohse Knous, research in this area is very new. Scientists and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are just now trying to develop a database to catalogue and understand the benefits of these nutrients.

As a nutritionist, "the nice thing you can say is eat those fruits and vegetables; eat those plant foods," Lohse Knous said. "The whole idea of a plant-based diet is extremely important. Not only do they have nutrients like vitamins and minerals, but they have been found to have all of these other phytonutrients that we now know help us survive."

The term ‘phytonutrients’ refers to compounds originally developed for plants. Polyphenols, as nutrients, often exist in plant foods to help them survive in the environment.

"An orange doesn’t make Vitamin C so that humans [who eat oranges] have Vitamin C," Lohse Knous said. "An orange makes Vitamin C so that it can protect itself against the environment."

For example, polyphenols protect plant foods by killing harmful bacteria and parasites; or acting as antioxidants by stopping the formation of ‘free radicals,’ which are known to cause cancer. When humans ingest these foods, the polyphenols provide the same protective benefits.

"Knowing about these phytonutrients is a bonus," Lohse Knous said. "It’s like we’re getting something else that we didn’t plan on getting, and lo and behold, they’re very helpful for us."

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K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by:
Pat Melgares, News Coordinator
pmelgare@oznet.ksu.edu
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Barbara Lohse Knous is at 785-532-0154