By Deanna Minich, PhD
For years, I’ve been talking about “eating the rainbow” of colorful, whole, plant-based foods. Why? Because of the 5,000 to 10,000 of healthful compounds in plant foods called phytochemicals (1). These phytochemicals include compounds referred to as phenolic acids, lignans, alkaloids, flavonoids, carotenoids, isoflavones, and stilbenes, to name a few. Most people don’t know much about them because they aren’t listed on a food label, but what we know from scientific research is that they are just as important as any other nutrient. In fact, perhaps even more so, despite the fact we typically eat less than a teaspoon a day (~1.5 grams) of these precious plant actives in comparison with more than 50 grams of each of the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) (2).
Decades ago, phytochemicals were categorized into one primary function – that of being antioxidants. However, we now know they do much more. They have specific genomic and even functional roles in the body (3). For example, lutein, the yellowish carotenoid found in kale, basil, and parsley, settles into the back of the eye in an area called the macula to help with vision (4). Anthocyanins found in the skin of blueberries have been shown to get into the brain in areas to help with learning and memory (5). Unfortunately, the average American is experiencing a “phytonutrient gap” with eight out of ten people not meeting their daily quotient of phytochemical colors (6). As a result, this deficiency may be part of the chronic disease epidemic.
Recently, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2020-2025) recommended beverages, including coffee, as part of a healthy dietary pattern since they can contribute phytochemicals (7). For most of my life, I didn’t drink coffee. In fact, I avoided it because I thought it was unhealthy in some way. And, then I began reading scientific paper after paper on why coffee had health benefits. I was wondering if I was missing something. One research study that started to turn the tide of my thinking was an extensive analysis of more than 1000 foods and beverages in which coffee came out in the top 6 foods highest in antioxidants on a per serving basis (8). This high mark came from its phytochemical content. Aside from the antioxidant content, most people think about the benefit of coffee relating to caffeine. However, 2,000 substances have been identified in coffee (9).
As a result, I began to get more curious about coffee, and proactively started drinking it for the phytochemicals just a few years ago. I told myself, “just like food, coffee is medicine”. I would have my morning cup of coffee and it felt like a soothing ritual to start the day, and now I didn’t have the guilt that I was doing something bad for my body. I didn’t get anxious from it, probably because of my fast-metabolizing genes for caffeine.
In fact, at a certain point, I realized that I had left the color “brown” off of the rainbow list of foods. In my mind, the rainbow diet I’ve been teaching for years needed to include brown so that coffee could be added to the list of phytochemically power-packed beverages.
So, what are the top phytonutrients in coffee that are going to do your body good?
Well, there are thousands of them, and many can become damaged with the roasting process, so you have to ensure that you have a company who ‘gets’ phytochemicals and how to select, roast, and prepare coffee to maximize the phytochemical content at the same time the amount of harmful compounds like acrylamides and polyaromatic hydrocarbons are minimized. It’s a delicate and sophisticated science. Here’s where Purity Coffee comes in. They are masters of understanding the complex array of phytochemicals and how to synergize them for taste profile while ramping up health benefits!
Here are some of the phytochemicals that Purity Coffee focuses on:
Chlorogenic acid is one of the top phytochemicals in coffee, as it is in highest amount and primarily contributes to coffee’s potent antioxidant potential. This phenolic compound has been shown to help with insulin sensitivity and even help with protecting nerve cells from damaging stress (10). In a recent clinical trial, those given chlorogenic acid for 12 weeks had improved attention and cognition (11). In fact, I came to learn that Purity Coffee has a commitment to ensuring that chlorogenic acid levels in the starter bean are high by laboratory testing them before they even take them into the roasting process. Because the amount of chlorogenic acids (and Purity Coffee has their eye on trigonelline and chlorogenic acid lactones) is variable from bean to bean, if a coffee purveyor is not doing diligence on this initial aspect of ensuring the baseline quantities are high, then that amount may be negligible in the final product.
The reason why chlorogenic acid is so important to pay attention to, like Purity Coffee does, is that this compound gets converted by the gut microbiome to ferulic acid so that blood levels increase after drinking coffee. Ferulic acid has a variety of functions, including promoting glutathione levels, acting as an antioxidant, and promoting an anti-inflammatory environment. Animal studies suggest that it may help ward off metabolic syndrome and even weight gain (12).
According to the USDA, brewed coffee contains a variety of flavonoids, including the flavan-3-ols, epicatechin and epigallocatechin, as well as the flavonols, myricetin and quercetin (13). Flavonoids are known to exert anti-inflammatory activity, be protective for the gut, and help with cardiovascular function (14). They act as benzodiazepine agonists in the brain, reducing anxiety (15). Their brain effects go beyond altering mood states, as we can see from the mounting data on the role of flavonoids and reduced rates of cognitive decline and dementia (16). In other words, if you want to be in a relaxed mood and think better, coffee might just provide the flavonoids you need!
Coffee contains an array of isoflavones, such as daidzein, genistein, formononetin, biochanin A and glycitein (17,18). Isoflavones act as weak estrogens in the plant kingdom and have known protective effects against the more active estrogens in the body that can cause cancer (19). Because of this activity, there is the possibility for these compounds to make a favorable impact on bone, heart, and brain health.
These phytochemicals are just a sampling of the thousands of complex phytochemicals with diverse health benefits present in a cup of coffee. If you feeling like you could use some additional phytochemicals because either you are getting too few in the diet or because your life is stressful, it may be worthwhile to think of coffee as providing the potential to fill the everyday gap of phytochemicals. And, believe me, we could ALL use more phytochemicals, even those of us eating a plant-based diet.
Therefore, next time you drink your cup of coffee, know that you’ll be taking in thousands of bioactive, healthful phytochemicals to help you live life more healthfully, protecting you from the onset of chronic disease – Purity Coffee has you covered with its carefully selected and roasted beans!
- Marianne C Walsh, Lorraine Brennan, Estelle Pujos-Guillot, Jean-Louis Sébédio, Augustin Scalbert, Ailís Fagan, Desmond G Higgins, Michael J Gibney, Influence of acute phytochemical intake on human urinary metabolomic profiles, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 86, Issue 6, December 2007, Pages 1687–1693, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/86.5.1687
- Cassidy A, Dalais FS. Phytochemicals. In: Gibney MJ, Roche HM. ed. Nutrition and metabolism. Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell Science, 2003:307–17.
- Deanna M. Minich, “A Review of the Science of Colorful, Plant-Based Food and Practical Strategies for “Eating the Rainbow”,” Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, vol. 2019, Article ID 2125070, 19 pages, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/2125070.
- Ma L, Liu R, Du JH, Liu T, Wu SS, Liu XH. Lutein, Zeaxanthin and Meso-zeaxanthin Supplementation Associated with Macular Pigment Optical Density. Nutrients. 2016;8(7):426. Published 2016 Jul 12. doi:10.3390/nu8070426
- Nutr Neurosci. 2005 Apr;8(2):111-20.
Anthocyanins in aged blueberry-fed rats are found centrally and may enhance memory.
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- Mario G Ferruzzi, Jirayu Tanprasertsuk, Penny Kris-Etherton, Connie M Weaver, Elizabeth J Johnson, Perspective: The Role of Beverages as a Source of Nutrients and Phytonutrients, Advances in Nutrition, , nmz115, https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmz115
- Bente L Halvorsen, Monica H Carlsen, Katherine M Phillips, Siv K Bøhn, Kari Holte, David R Jacobs, Rune Blomhoff, Content of redox-active compounds (ie, antioxidants) in foods consumed in the United States, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 84, Issue 1, July 2006, Pages 95–135, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/84.1.95
- Echeverri D, Montes FR, Cabrera M, Galán A, Prieto A. Caffeine’s Vascular Mechanisms of Action. Int J Vasc Med. 2010;2010:834060. doi:10.1155/2010/834060
- J Agric Food Chem. 2009 Oct 28;57(20):9801-8. doi: 10.1021/jf902095z.
Roasted coffees high in lipophilic antioxidants and chlorogenic acid lactones are more neuroprotective than green coffees.
Chu YF1, Brown PH, Lyle BJ, Chen Y, Black RM, Williams CE, Lin YC, Hsu CW, Cheng IH.
- Ochiai R, Saitou K, Suzukamo C, Osaki N, Asada T. Effect of Chlorogenic Acids on Cognitive Function in Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Randomized Controlled Crossover Trial. J Alzheimers Dis. 2019;72(4):1209–1216. doi:10.3233/JAD-190757
- McCarty MF, Assanga SBI. Ferulic acid may target MyD88-mediated pro-inflammatory signaling – Implications for the health protection afforded by whole grains, anthocyanins, and coffee. Medical Hypotheses. 2018;118:114-120.
- Olivas-Aguirre FJ, Rodrigo-García J, Martínez-Ruiz ND, et al. Cyanidin-3-O-glucoside: Physical-Chemistry, Foodomics and Health Effects. Molecules. 2016;21(9):1264. Published 2016 Sep 21. doi:10.3390/molecules21091264
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