Anti-inflammatory alchemy: Pain relief from polyphenols and proteins in coffee with milk
31 Jan 2023 --- Coffee with milk might have a heightened anti-inflammatory effect, according to new research conducted by the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. The researchers demonstrated that as a polyphenol reacts with an amino acid, its inhibitory effect on inflammation in immune cells is enhanced.
“Antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties of polyphenols are well-known, but polyphenols react with proteins in foods, and until now, there have been no reports on how the reaction with proteins affect the properties of polyphenols in relation to human health,” study lead Professor Marianne Nissen Lund, department of food science, University of Copenhagen tells NutritionInsight.
“The fact that the anti-inflammatory effects are increased when polyphenols react with an amino acid (which is part of a protein) is very interesting, which is why we want to investigate this even further so we – ideally – can tailor our foods to have the optimal composition for human health.”
Protein and antioxidant activation
Researchers at the department of food science collaborated with the department of veterinary and animal sciences to investigate how polyphenols behave when combined with amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. The findings have been published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
Antioxidants known as polyphenols are found in humans, plants, fruits and vegetables. The food industry uses this group of antioxidants to slow the oxidation and deterioration of food quality and thereby avoid off-flavors and rancidity. Polyphenols are also known to be healthy for humans, as they help reduce oxidative stress in the body, which gives rise to inflammation.
“Polyphenols readily react with proteins in most types of food products that contain both components, so in principle, any polyphenol-rich food (vegetables, fruits) combined with protein-rich food (milk, meat, lentils, chickpeas) would contain a certain amount of these protein-polyphenol compounds,” Lund continues.
The effect of polyphenols
Polyphenols are a group of naturally occurring antioxidants essential for humans.
They prevent and delay the oxidation of healthy chemical substances and organs in our bodies, protecting them from damage or destruction.
These antioxidants are found in various fruits and vegetables, tea, coffee, red wine and beer.
Due to their antioxidant properties, polyphenols are used in the food industry to minimize the oxidation of fats and the deterioration of foods to avoid off-flavors and rancidity.
To investigate the anti-inflammatory effect of combining polyphenols with proteins, the researchers applied artificial inflammation to immune cells. Some cells received various doses of polyphenols that had reacted with an amino acid, while others only received polyphenols in the same quantities. The control group received nothing.
The researchers observed that immune cells treated with the combination of polyphenols and amino acids were twice as effective at fighting inflammation as the cells to which only polyphenols were added.
“We have only studied two types of polyphenols so far and there are circa 8000 different types. Not all of these can react with proteins, but we still have many unanswered questions regarding effects on the human body,” says Lund.
There is still much unknown about polyphenols, and few studies have investigated what happens when polyphenols react with other molecules, such as proteins, mixed into foods. In diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation occurs when the tendons and muscles are overloaded.
Furthermore, when bacteria, viruses and foreign substances enter the body, the immune system reacts by deploying white blood cells and chemical substances to protect it.
“It is interesting to observe the anti-inflammatory effect in cell experiments. This has only made us more interested in understanding these health effects in greater detail. The next step will be to study the effects in animals,” says senior author of the study, Andrew Williams, from the department of veterinary and animal sciences, faculty of health and medical sciences.
Trail of research
Previous research studies demonstrated that polyphenols bind to proteins in meat products, milk and beer. In one such study, they tested whether the molecules also bind to each other in coffee with milk and found that coffee beans are filled with polyphenols, while milk is rich in proteins.
“Our result demonstrates that the reaction between polyphenols and proteins also happens in some coffee drinks with milk that we studied. The reaction happens so quickly that it has been difficult to avoid in any of the foods we’ve studied so far,” Lund explains.
As a result, the researchers believe it is not a far stretch that there are potential anti-inflammatory benefits when other foods consisting of proteins such as fruit and vegetables are combined.
“I can imagine that something similar happens in, for example, a meat dish with vegetables or a smoothie if you make sure to add some protein like milk or yogurt,” she says.
According to the researchers, these advantages have been considered seriously by industry and the research community working to add the right quantities of polyphenols in foods to achieve the right combination.
“Because humans do not absorb that much polyphenol, many researchers are studying how to encapsulate polyphenols in protein structures which improve their absorption in the body. This strategy has the added advantage of enhancing the anti-inflammatory effects of polyphenols,” explains Lund.
The research is funded by Independent Research Fund Denmark and conducted in collaboration with the Technical University of Dresden in Germany.
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By Inga de Jong
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