Bioactive molecules in food: what they are and in which foods they are contained

Bioactive molecules in food: what they are and in which foods they are contained

Alpha and beta carotene, lycopene, and polyphenols activate cellular mechanisms that can lead to health benefits


  • What are
  • Where are
  • Are they good for your health?

What are

Bioactive molecules are substances of very varied chemical composition widely distributed in the plant world: alpha and beta carotene, lycopene, lutein and polyphenols (such as catechins, flavonols, anthocyanins, isoflavones, flavanones, phenolic acids, stilbenes, lignans), glucosinolates and metabolites, it appears that they activate cellular mechanisms that can lead to health benefits.

Where are

They are found mainly in fruit and vegetables, for this reason vegetables, especially if they are in season, should be consumed every day through the intake of 5 portions in total.

Their qualitative and quantitative composition is predominantly determined by genetics, which means that each species and each variety contains different molecules. To the genetic variability, then, are added environmental factors such as light, temperature characteristics of the soil and cultivation techniques, which can modulate the concentration of bioactive molecules present in plant products.

These are the main bioactive molecules:

  • Alpha and Beta carotene. They are contained in orange-colored fruits and vegetables (such as melon, peaches, apricots, squash, persimmons, carrots, etc.) and in dark green vegetables (spinach, chard, lettuce, etc.).
  • Lycopene. Present in tomato, watermelon and pink grapefruit.
  • Lutein. It is found in leafy and green vegetables (spinach, kale, zucchini, peas and broccoli).

Then there are the famous polyphenols, which are divided into flavonoids and non-flavonoids.

Among the flavonoids:

  • Flavonols (quercetin, kaempferol, myricetin etc.), found in onion, kale, leeks, broccoli, blueberries, red grapes, tea.
  • Anthocyanins. Contained in red fruits, berries, red turnips and blood oranges.
  • Isoflavones (plant sterols). Present in legumes (mainly soy), nuts, mushrooms and barley.
  • Flavanones (hesperidin, naringenin). In citrus, especially orange and grapefruit.

Among the non-flavonoids:

  • Phenolic acids. Wine, coffee, tea.
  • Stilbenes (resveratrol). Grapes, red wine, berries and berries.
  • Lignans. Whole grains, legumes, asparagus, broccoli and carrots.

Among the bioactive molecules then appear the glucosinolates and metabolites (sulfur compounds eg isothiocyanates, dithioltions, allisulfide, indoles). They are found in cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, turnips, radishes, arugula, horseradish, watercress, onion, garlic etc.

Are they good for your health?

All these substances have a strong antioxidant power and are protective for health as they are capable of reducing an excess of free radicals, a condition involved in numerous degenerative diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

But, on their own, are they really useful for health? This is the question that researchers around the world have recently asked themselves. Until recently, these molecules were credited with explaining the benefits of fruits and vegetables, thinking that they acted directly as antioxidant molecules. Today, however, the interpretation that bioactive molecules would activate cellular mechanisms that can lead to health benefits is prevalent, but there is still not enough clarity since, while it is proven that the consumption of fruit and vegetables brings health benefits, the administration outside the food of such molecules as antioxidants, polyphenols, etc., did not give the expected positive results. The bioactive molecules otherwise taken would not completely "remedy" the damage of a low consumption of fruit and vegetables.

It is therefore important to shift attention from the individual components to the food as a whole, to other food choices and, globally, to lifestyle.

Tag: Food Antioxidants Natural remedies

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