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What is the difference between antioxidants and polyphenols?

olive oil nutrition

What is the difference between antioxidants and polyphenols?
What is the difference between antioxidants and polyphenols?

Olive oil experts often talk about polyphenols and antioxidants in terms of the potential health benefits of extra virgin olive oil. It is then important to understand the difference between a polyphenol and an antioxidant and what role they play in our health.


Antioxidants are molecules that damage our body from free radicals caused by free radicals. Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant that is abundant in extra virgin olive oil.

Oxidation and the importance of antioxidants

Many of the fruits and vegetables we consume contain a large number of vital compounds. One such type of compound is known as antioxidants. Why are antioxidants so important for our health? To better understand this, you must first understand and estimate how our body gets energy from the oxidation process .

Oxidation is a natural process that our cells use to extract energy from the oxygen we breathe. Because energy is produced in our cells, some oxygen molecules (known as free oxygen radicals or reactive oxygen species) are produced as a byproduct of these processes. These free oxygen radicals can damage your cells and DNA in high concentrations. Continuous damage from free oxygen radicals, most commonly referred to as oxidative stress, can lead to various conditions, including:

  • Various forms of cancer

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Diabetes

  • Osteoporosis

  • Alzheimer's disease

  • Dementia

  • Wrinkles related to age

Unfortunately, the production of these harmful chemicals is sometimes amplified by the environment in which we live. Several lifestyle, stress, and environmental factors that have been shown to increase the production of free oxygen radicals include (but are not limited to):

  • Cigarette

  • Alcohol consumption

  • High blood sugar levels

  • Air pollution

  • High intake of polyunsaturated fats

  • Excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation

  • Various bacterial or viral infections

  • Antioxidant deficiency

So how do antioxidants fit into the great scheme of our body and our health? Antioxidants are chemicals known to be "molecular scavengers" that help neutralize free oxygen radicals, thus preventing the onset of oxidative stress. There are hundreds of known antioxidants, some of which we consume in our daily diet:

  • Vitamin A

  • Ascorbic acid

  • Vitamin e

  • Selenium

  • Manganese

  • Carotenoids

  • And.... POLYPHENOLS!

What is a polyphenol and how is it related to antioxidants?

Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant typically produced by plants to ward off ultraviolet radiation or foreign pathogens that can endanger the overall health of the plant. Polyphenols also provide our senses with the bitterness, smell, color, and taste we perceive when we consume certain types of foods, especially fruits and vegetables. (2)

Polyphenols are of great interest to scientists and nutritionists alike for their antioxidant functions and in the prevention of various diseases. The field of polyphenol research, and in particular the mechanism of its antioxidant functions, remains a very fertile area of scientific research. One type of polyphenol of interest for this particular discussion is olive polyphenols.

Polyphenols in olive oils

Olive oil, an oil known to be rich in monounsaturated fats and polyphenols, is a key ingredient in many diets (including the Mediterranean diet). Extra virgin olive oils have the most antioxidants and polyphenols present, and depending on the amount of polyphenols, it can affect the taste of the olive oil. Due to its higher concentration of polyphenols, extra virgin olive oil is spicier than regular olive oil. (3) The polyphenol content in olives can be influenced by a number of factors, including:

  • Climate where grown (in terms of altitude, rainfall and amount of irrigation)

  • Ripening phase of the fruit

  • Fruit yield per tree

  • Extraction conditions for the polyphenols

  • Storage time and storage conditions

While there are many types of olive polyphenols, much of the research up to this point has focused on three:

  • Hydroxytyrosol, a phenolic compound found in olive oil, has been identified as one of the most powerful antioxidants in olive oil and may help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.( 1)

  • Oleuropein, another antioxidant polyphenol found in olive oil, has also been shown to be very effective in eliminating various bacteria and viruses that infect humans.(1)

  • Oleocanthal is recommended to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects similar to the effects of ibuprofen, and therefore may help reduce the severity of several chronic inflammatory diseases. (4)

Previous studies have also shown that these polyphenols made from virgin olive oils (rather than sunflower oil) protect against coronary heart disease by preventing oxidation of the cholesterol-carrying molecule known as low-density lipoprotein. (5)

What happens to polyphenols during cooking?

When cooking with extra virgin olive oil, various culinary methods can reduce the amount of polyphenols in vegetables (including potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, and pumpkin). Most of this loss is due more to the temperature at which extra virgin olive oil is cooked than to the time spent cooking. (6) Fortunately, not all polyphenols and their antioxidant functions are lost. Studies have shown that these polyphenols typically migrate from olive oil to vegetables that are cooked efficiently; It is recommended to add olive oil to all vegetables as part of your meal preparation to maintain a polyphenol-rich diet. (8) It's also important to note that while some mistakenly believe you shouldn't cook with extra virgin olive oil, it has proven to be one of the most stable cooking oils. (7)


The benefits of consuming natural plant polyphenols have been known for quite some time. Research suggests that these polyphenols may reduce morbidity and slow the progression of various cancers, neurodegenerative diseases, as well as cardiovascular disease. Oleuropein, hydroxytyrosoland other polyphenol compounds are abundant in olive oil. And while some olive polyphenols can get lost during cooking, not all of them are... and what remains is 100% more than what you find in other cooking oils. Therefore, increasing the consumption of olive oil and other plant products that contain an abundance of polyphenols seems like a smart choice for those who want to improve their overall health.


  1. Gorzynik-Debicka, M. et. al.., Potenzielle gesundheitliche Vorteile von Olivenöl und Pflanzenpolyphenolen. Internationale Zeitschrift für Molekulare Wissenschaften. 19; (547), 2018.

  2. Pandey, K.B. und Rizvi, S.I. Pflanzen Polyphenole als Diät-Antioxidantien in der menschlichen Gesundheit und Krankheit. Oxidative Medizin und zelluläre Langlebigkeit. 2; (5), 2009.

  3. Rigacci, S. und Stefani, M. Nutraceutical Properties of Olive Oil Polyphenols. Eine Reiseroute von kultivierten Zellen über Tiermodelle bis hin zum Menschen. Internationale Zeitschrift für Molekulare Wissenschaften. Nr. 17; (6), 2016. Dies liegt daran, dass normales Olivenöl eine Mischung aus raffiniertem Olivenöl und nativem Olivenöl ist. Während native Olivenöle reich an Polyphenolen und Antioxidantien sind, ist raffiniertes Olivenöl nicht. Der Polyphenolgehalt von normalem Olivenöl stammt vollständig aus dem nativen Olivenöl im Produkt.

  4. Parkinson, L. und Keast, R. Oleocanthal, ein Phenol aus nativem Olivenöl: Eine Überprüfung der positiven Auswirkungen auf entzündliche Erkrankungen. Internationale Zeitschrift für Molekulare Wissenschaften. 15; (7), 2014.

  5. Aguilera, C.M., et al., Sonnenblumenöl schützt nicht vor LDL-Oxidation wie natives Olivenöl bei Patienten mit peripherer Gefäßerkrankung. Klinische Ernährung. 23; (4), 2004.

  6. Lozano-Castellon, J. et. al., Domestic Sautéing with EVOO: Change in the Phenolic Profile. Antioxidantien. 9; (1), 2020.

  7. Guillaume, D. und Ravetti, L. Bewertung chemischer und physikalischer Veränderungen in verschiedenen kommerziellen Ölen während des Erhitzens. Acta Scientific Ernährungsgesundheit. 2; (6), 2018.

  8. Ramirez-Anaya, J.P., et. al., Veränderungen in den antioxidativen Eigenschaften von nativem Olivenöl extra nach dem Kochen von typisch mediterranem Gemüse. Antioxidantien. 8, (8). Im Jahr 2019.

Über den Autor

Dr. Ryan Wynne ist Professor für Biologie am St. Thomas Aquinas College. Er promovierte in

Biochemie an der Lehigh University und absolvierte eine Ausbildung zum Postdoktoranden an der University of Rochester. Dr. Wynne verfügt über mehr als 15 Jahre Erfahrung in der Forschung auf dem Gebiet der Biologie. Er hat Forschungsergebnisse in Nature Protocols, Journal of Neurochemistry, Journal of Neurobiology, Glia und Ethology, Ecology & Evolutionveröffentlicht.