Bioavailability and health effects of dietary flavonols in man

Arch Toxicol Suppl. 1998:20:237-48. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-46856-8_21.


Flavonoids are polyphenolic compounds that occur ubiquitously in foods of plant origin. Over 4000 different flavonoids have been described, and they are categorized into flavonols, flavones, catechins, flavanones, anthocyanidins, and isoflavonoids. Flavonoids have a variety of biological effects in numerous mammalian cell systems, as well as in vivo. Recently much attention has been paid to their antioxidant properties and to their inhibitory role in various stages of tumour development in animal studies. Quercetin, the major representative of the flavonol subclass, is a strong antioxidant, and prevents oxidation of low density lipoproteins in vitro. Oxidized low density lipoproteins are atherogenic, and are considered to be a crucial intermediate in the formation of atherosclerotic plaques. This agrees with observations in epidemiological studies that the intake of flavonols and flavones was inversely associated with subsequent coronary heart disease. However, no effects of flavonols on cancer were found in these studies. The extent of absorption of flavonoids is an important unsolved problem in judging their many alleged health effects. Flavonoids present in foods were considered non-absorbable because they are bound to sugars as beta-glycosides. Only free flavonoids without a sugar molecule, the so-called aglycones were thought to be able to pass through the gut wall. Hydrolysis only occurs in the colon by microorganisms, which at the same time degrade flavonoids. We performed a study to quantify absorption of various dietary forms of quercetin. To our surprise, the quercetin glycosides from onions were absorbed far better than the pure aglycone. Subsequent pharmacokinetic studies with dietary quercetin glycosides showed marked differences in absorption rate and bioavailability. Absorbed quercetin was eliminated only slowly from the blood. The metabolism of flavonoids has been studied frequently in various animals, but very few data in humans are available. Two major sites of flavonoid metabolism are the liver and the colonic flora. There is evidence for O-methylation, sulfation and glucuronidation of hydroxyl groups in the liver. Bacterial ring fission of flavonoids occurs in the colon. The subsequent degradation products, phenolic acids, can be absorbed and are found in urine of animals. Quantitative data on metabolism are scarce.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biological Availability
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Diet*
  • Flavonoids / pharmacokinetics*
  • Flavonoids / therapeutic use*
  • Flavonols
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*


  • Flavonoids
  • Flavonols