Polyphenols and the modulation of gene expression pathways: can we eat our way out of the danger of chronic disease?

Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2014;54(8):985-1001. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2011.621772.


Plant-derived dietary polyphenols may improve some disease states and promote health. Experimental evidence suggests that this is partially attributable to changes in gene expression. The rational use of bioactive food components may therefore present an opportunity to activate or repress selected gene expression pathways and, consequently, to manage or prevent disease. It remains to be determined whether this use of bioactive food components can be done safely. This article reviews the associated controversies and limitations of polyphenol therapy. There is a paucity of clinical data on the rational use of polyphenols, including a lack of knowledge on effective dosage, actual chemical formulations, bioavailability, distribution in tissues, the effect of genetic variations, differences in gut microflora, the synergistic (or antagonistic) effects observed in extracts, and the possible interaction between polyphenols and lipid domains of cell membranes that may alter the function of relevant receptors. The seminal question of why plants make substances that benefit humans remains unanswered, and there is still much to learn in terms of correlative versus causal effects of human exposure to various nutrients. The available data strongly suggest significant effects at the molecular level that represent interactions with the epigenome. The advent of relatively simple technologies is helping the field of epigenetics progress and facilitating the acquisition of multiple types of data that were previously difficult to obtain. In this review, we summarize the molecular basis of the epigenetic regulation of gene expression and the epigenetic changes associated with the consumption of polyphenols that illustrate how modifications in human nutrition may become relevant to health and disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging
  • Biological Availability
  • Chronic Disease / prevention & control*
  • Diet*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics
  • Flavonoids
  • Food
  • Food Handling
  • Food, Fortified
  • Gene Expression Regulation*
  • Histones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Inflammation
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena / genetics
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Plants / chemistry
  • Polyphenols / administration & dosage*
  • Polyphenols / analysis
  • Polyphenols / pharmacokinetics


  • Flavonoids
  • Histones
  • Polyphenols