Potential toxicity of flavonoids and other dietary phenolics: significance for their chemopreventive and anticancer properties

Free Radic Biol Med. 2004 Aug 1;37(3):287-303. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2004.04.034.


Flavonoids, including isoflavones, are natural components in our diet and, with the burgeoning interest in alternative medicine, are increasingly being ingested by the general population. Plant phenolics, which form moieties on flavonoid rings, such as gallic acid, are also widely consumed. Several beneficial properties have been attributed to these dietary compounds, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticarcinogenic effects. Flavonoid preparations are marketed as herbal medicines or dietary supplements for a variety of alleged nontoxic therapeutic effects. However, they have yet to pass controlled clinical trials for efficacy, and their potential for toxicity is an understudied field of research. This review summarizes the current knowledge regarding potential dietary flavonoid/phenolic-induced toxicity concerns, including their pro-oxidant activity, mitochondrial toxicity (potential apoptosis-inducing properties), and interactions with drug-metabolizing enzymes. Their chemopreventive activity in animal in vivo experiments may result from their ability to inhibit phase I and induce phase II carcinogen metabolizing enzymes that initiate carcinogenesis. They also inhibit the promotion stage of carcinogenesis by inhibiting oxygen radical-forming enzymes or enzymes that contribute to DNA synthesis or act as ATP mimics and inhibit protein kinases that contribute to proliferative signal transduction. Finally, they may prevent tumor development by inducing tumor cell apoptosis by inhibiting DNA topoisomerase II and p53 downregulation or by causing mitochondrial toxicity, which initiates mitochondrial apoptosis. While most flavonoids/phenolics are considered safe, flavonoid/phenolic therapy or chemopreventive use needs to be assessed as there have been reports of toxic flavonoid-drug interactions, liver failure, contact dermatitis, hemolytic anemia, and estrogenic-related concerns such as male reproductive health and breast cancer associated with dietary flavonoid/phenolic consumption or exposures.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dietary Supplements / adverse effects
  • Dietary Supplements / toxicity*
  • Drug Interactions
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions*
  • Flavonoids / administration & dosage
  • Flavonoids / adverse effects
  • Flavonoids / therapeutic use
  • Flavonoids / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / diet therapy
  • Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Phenols / administration & dosage
  • Phenols / adverse effects
  • Phenols / therapeutic use
  • Phenols / toxicity*


  • Flavonoids
  • Phenols