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Plant secondary metabolites and gut health: the case for phenolic acids

  • Wendy Russell (a1) and Garry Duthie (a1)

Plant-based diets contain a plethora of secondary metabolites that may impact on health and disease prevention. Much attention has been focused on the potential bioactivity and nutritional relevance of several classes of phytochemicals such as flavonoids, carotenoids, phyto-oestrogens and glucosinolates. Less attention has been paid to simple phenolic acids that are widely found in fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices and beverages. Daily intakes may exceed 100 mg. In addition, bacteria in the gut can perform reactions that transform more complex plant phenolics such as anthocyanins, procyanidins, flavanones, flavonols, tannins and isoflavones into simple phenolic metabolites. The colon is thus a rich source of potentially active phenolic acids that may impact both locally and systemically on gut health. Both the small and large intestine (colon) contain absorption sites for phenolic acids but low post-prandial concentrations in plasma indicate minimal absorption early in the gastrointestinal tract and/or rapid hepatic metabolism and excretion. Therefore, any bioactivity that contributes to gut health may predominantly occur in the colon. Several phenolic acids affect the expression and activity of enzymes involved in the production of inflammatory mediators of pathways thought to be important in the development of gut disorders including colon cancer. However, at present, we remain largely ignorant as to which of these compounds are beneficial to gut health. Until we can elucidate which pro-inflammatory and potentially carcinogenetic changes in gene expression can be moderated by simple phenolic acids, it is not possible to recommend specific plant-based foods rich in particular phenolics to optimise gut health.

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Corresponding author
*Corresponding author: Professor Garry Duthie, fax +44 1224 716629, email
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