Happy (almost) weekend! If you’ve ever looked at the nutrition facts for the various fruits and vegetables, you may have noticed that many tend to be rather low in a lot of the essential nutrients. If this has left you wondering why the major health organizations all encourage us to eat more of them, today’s article is going to interest you. It may come as a surprise, but one of the biggest reasons for the push to eat more is because of the phytonutrients such as polyphenols, and less because of the essential vitamin and mineral content.
Because this article may be of particular interest to plant-based eaters, I thought I’d share a new project that I am working on for specific brand recommendations of meat alternatives (veggie burgers, etc.) that are not ultra-processed. I’ll also cover some of the best dairy-free options to ensure that those who eschew dairy have that group on the MyPlate covered.
In this article:
- What are polyphenols?
- Are there really health benefits to consuming polyphenols?
- Looking for minimally processed meat alternatives?
- Do you know the best dairy-free options that fit the MyPlate?
What are polyphenols?
Simply put, polyphenols are compounds in plants that are currently the focus of much scientific interest, because it is believed that they may have beneficial effects on long-term health. There are literally thousands of these non-essential compounds, many of which have not been studied yet. Flavonoids, phenolic acids, lignans, and stilbenes are the four broad classes of polyphenols, and some plant foods are much more abundant in certain types of polyphenols than others.
The flavonoids are the most abundant in the diet and are especially rich in many types of berries. Resveratrol is the most well-studied stilbene and is often credited in the media as a health-benefiting component of red wine. But how much do we really know about these compounds?
Are there really health benefits to consuming polyphenols?
I gave my two cents on polyphenols over at PureWow in an article titled 8 Foods that are high in polyphenols (and why you should add them to your diet). Here are a few things I’d like to add that did not get into the above article:
- The suggestion for 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day is terrific, but I generally recommend that people try to aim for at least five daily so that they do not feel like they are trying to reach an impossible goal. Even five servings per day are more than most people are eating.
- I am so glad that this article listed red grapes as a great source of polyphenols (though the red wine was mentioned) since alcohol intake is linked to cancer.
- The point one of my colleagues made about polyphenols working synergistically within the plant food to produce beneficial effects is one of the most important points in the article, and one that I’d like to talk a little more about.
People who report that they are consuming a diet rich in foods that contain polyphenols appear to have a lower chronic disease risk and lower overall mortality. Since there have been reports of adverse outcomes related to consuming polyphenolic botanical extracts, consuming polyphenols within their natural food matrix is the way to go. Yes, that means dark chocolate, fruits, vegetables, coffee, and tea. However, since these compounds are not essential nor conditionally essential, there is little reason to risk supplementing with them, IMO.
The truth is that while there are health benefits linked to these polyphenol-rich foods, in some cases, it’s not possible to consume foods in the amounts that are considered to give people the studied dose of the polyphenol. For example, this helpful graphic from a 2016 review shows you exactly how much resveratrol-rich food you would need to eat each day in order to reach the proposed therapeutic dose of 1 gram/day:
As the authors quip, “these rough calculations clearly document that the consumption of red wine is not a good explanation of the pathologic mechanisms predicting the French paradox.” The good people of France are most definitely not consuming over 500 liters of red wine per day (each) for the resveratrol! Rather, the many components of foods that are rich in polyphenols (when consumed as unprocessed or minimally processed foods) seem to be working synergistically in our bodies in ways that we do not fully understand. Taking the various polyphenols in an isolated form as supplements has resulted in adverse outcomes in some cases.
Looking for minimally processed meat alternatives?
If last week’s article on ultra-processed foods left you feeling like you need to go through the time-intensive process of cooking dried beans and grains from scratch every time you want a minimally processed vegan meal, rest assured that is not the case. Time is short for many, and as a result, I do see many plant-based eaters falling back on ultra-processed meat and cheese alternatives, often daily, and sometimes as part of every single meal.
While it is acceptable (and even permitted by the Dietary Guidelines) to have small snacks daily, it is not really optimal to be having these ultra-processed meat alternatives serve as a stand-in for many (or all) meals. As discussed last week, these products may interfere with maintaining a healthy weight, and the nutrients in these foods may not act in the body in the same way as nutrients consumed as part of their natural food matrix in whole foods. Plant-based does not automatically mean health-promoting; let’s not forget that most cookies are technically a plant-based food.
Thankfully, there are some minimally processed meat alternatives available that are composed solely of whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, and (in some cases) eggs or dairy. (i.e., no protein isolates, no starches, no added oils, no added sugars). In general, these products aren’t trying too hard to pretend to be meat, and just let their tasty whole food ingredients shine through. I am compiling a list of the brands that make these products, and if you are interested in this information, you can find it over on my freebies page. You don’t even have to sign up for emails to access it.
Do you know the best dairy-free options that fit the MyPlate?
Also mentioned in last week’s article, calcium-fortified milk alternatives are considered an ultra-processed product, but I feel that the fortification is acceptable in this case because it helps people who do not consume dairy to meet their needs for calcium. In truth, I’d prefer to see the dairy group renamed the “calcium group,” to provide more clarity to consumers about why this food group is so important. If a person is substituting non-dairy products for the dairy, certain products make far better substitutions than others. (And I’ve caught errors in some of the major nutrient trackers regarding calcium amounts in certain foods, so it is important to know the best options.)
One thing to be aware of is that the calcium in soymilk fortified with calcium carbonate (the type used in Silk brand products) has a similar bioavailability to the calcium in cow’s milk. I’ve put together some of my top picks for non-dairy alternatives, and you can check them out for free over on my freebies page. Products that made the cut had to meet specific criteria for calcium and protein content and be plain or unsweetened.