The Healthiest Foods: A Definitive List

In case you’re a bit fuzzy on what polyphenols are, they’re the chemicals found in…


In case you’re a bit fuzzy on what polyphenols are, they’re the chemicals found in plants that are often collectively called phytochemicals. There are at least 8,000 of these polyphenols in existence, and they have, individually and collectively, amazing effects on the animals that eat them.

You know when someone says this fruit, vegetable, or plant is anti-inflammatory? Or that it prevents or fights cancer? Or that it stabilizes blood sugar, improves fat metabolism, treats cardiovascular disease, prevents Alzheimer’s, or improves the efficiency of the bacteria in your digestive system?

It’s all because of polyphenols (and, to a slightly lesser extent, carotenoids). And yes, fruits and vegetables contain lots of them, but they aren’t the only food groups that contain them. There are, in fact, four broad classes of polyphenols:

  1. Stilbenes: Resveratrol is a stilbene. It and its cousins are commonly found in red wines and peanuts, among other foods.
  2. Phenolic Acid: These types are found in coffee, teas, cherries, blueberries, and a bunch of other fruit drinks.
  3. Flavonoids: This is the biggest class of polyphenols. They’re found in green tea, red wine, legumes, and all sorts of fruits and vegetables.
  4. Lignans: These are found in flax seeds, algae, cereals, legumes, various grains, and various fruits and vegetables.

The right kinds and right amounts of polyphenols may someday give us the supposedly mythical “exercise in a pill” that modern-day nutritional alchemists have been searching for. Polyphenols might end up curing innumerable diseases. They may extend not just life span but “health span,” where men and women age but retain the vigor, strength, and mobility of youth.

That’s why any list of the healthiest foods that doesn’t take polyphenol content into consideration is suspect, and yeah, I’m talking about the three food classification systems I just finished describing. All of them should have referred to the Phenol-Explorer Database to see the top 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols.

If they had, they would have seen some food items that they hadn’t even considered while compiling their lists of healthiest foods. And they also might have seen some of the same foods they included on their lists, but for different reasons.

Now, it strikes me that if you found food items that were deemed “healthiest” on one, two, or three other lists, seeing the same food on the top 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols list might have affected how you ranked that food.

In fact, that’s what I looked for when compiling my list of healthiest foods, but before I list them, let’s look briefly at the top 100 (top 104, really) list. Twenty-two of the top polyphenol foods were in the seasoning group, followed by fruits (20), seeds (16 items), vegetables (16 items), non-alcoholic beverages (11 items), cereals (10 items), cocoa products (4 items), alcoholic beverages (3 items), and oils (2 items).

The highest polyphenol content, by a wide margin, was found in cloves – yeah, those flower buds that look like tiny railway spikes that are a staple of Middle Eastern cooking. Cloves contained more than 15,000 mg. of polyphenols per 100 grams. At the bottom of the list was rose wine, with 7.8 mg. per 100 ml.

Now I’m going to stop right there and not divulge any more on the list, or at least this particular list. Maybe you already noticed the problem: Who the hell is going to eat a “serving” of cloves, or for that matter, 100 grams of any of the other 21 seasonings that rated high on the list?

Yeah, nobody. But the scientists who compiled the list were aware of the inherent problem of that list, so they came up with another list, one that was actually useful. If a particular food had more than 1 milligram of polyphenols per serving, it made the second list. So, instead of cloves leading off the list, the highest-ranking foods were a quartet of “black” colored berries.

As you might expect, none of the 22 seasonings that appeared on the first list made the second one (as there was no data found on the serving sizes of seasonings, probably because, as stated, no one eats “servings” of spices).

Of this second list, 23 were fruits, 23 were vegetables, 16 were seeds, 10 were non-alcoholic beverages, 6 were cereals, 5 were alcoholic beverages, 4 were cocoa products, and 2 were oils. Keep in mind, serving size varies enormously from food item to food item. For instance, a serving of blueberries is 145 grams, whereas a serving of dark chocolate is 17 grams, but this reflects much more realistically the way we might ingest these foods.

Here are the top 20:

  1. Black elderberry: 1956 mg. of polyphenols per serving
  2. Black chokeberry: 1595 mg.
  3. Black currant: 1092 mg.
  4. Highbush blueberry: 806 mg.
  5. Globe artichoke heads: 436 mg.
  6. Coffee, filtered: 408 mg.
  7. Lowbush blueberry: 395 mg.
  8. Sweet cherry: 394 mg.
  9. Strawberry: 390 mg.
  10. Blackberry: 374 mg.
  11. Plum: 320 mg.
  12. Red raspberry: 310 mg.
  13. Flaxseed meal: 306 mg.
  14. Dark chocolate: 283 mg.
  15. Chestnut: 230 mg.
  16. Black tea: 197 mg.
  17. Green tea: 173 mg.
  18. Pure apple juice: 168 mg.
  19. Apple: 149 mg.
  20. Whole-grain rye bread: 146 mg.

Other notables on the list – things which most of us in the U.S. might eat on a regular basis – include black olives (85 mg.), spinach (70 mg.), green olives (52 mg.), black beans (52 mg.), potatoes (36), broccoli (33 mg.), beer (22 mg.), almonds (19 mg.), whole grain wheat flour (14 mg.), extra virgin olive oil (10 mg.), carrots (7.6 mg.), cauliflower (2.7 mg.), banana (2.5 mg.), tomato (2.1 mg.), and pomegranate (1.1 mg.).

The Healthiest Foods: A Definitive List