British Journal of Nutrition

Full Papers

Colonic metabolites of berry polyphenols: the missing link to biological activity?

Gary Williamsona1 c1 and Michael N. Clifforda2

a1 School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK

a2 Division of Nutritional Sciences, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey GU2 7XH, UK


The absorption of dietary phenols, polyphenols and tannins (PPT) is an essential step for biological activity and effects on health. Although a proportion of these dietary bioactive compounds are absorbed intact, depending on their chemical structure and the nature of any attached moiety (e.g. sugar, organic acid), substantial amounts of lower molecular weight catabolites are absorbed after biotransformation by the colon microflora. The main products in the colon are (a) benzoic acids (C6–C1), especially benzoic acid and protocatechuic acid; (b) phenylacetic acids (C6–C2), especially phenylacetic acid per se; (c) phenylpropionic acids (C6–C3), where the latter are almost entirely in the dihydro form, notably dihydrocaffeic acid, dihydroferulic acid, phenylpropionic acid and 3-(3′-hydroxyphenyl)-propionic acid. As a result of this biotransformation, some of these compounds can each reach mm concentrations in faecal water. Many of these catabolites are efficiently absorbed in the colon, appear in the blood and are ultimately excreted in the urine. In the case of certain polyphenols, such as anthocyanins, these catabolites are major products in vivo; protocatechuic acid is reported to represent a substantial amount of the ingested dose of cyanidin-3-O-glucoside. The major catabolites of berries, and especially blackcurrants, are predicted based on compositional data for polyphenols from berries and other sources. Since microbial catabolites may be present at many sites of the body in higher concentration than the parent compound, it is proposed that at least a part of the biological activities ascribed to berry polyphenols and other PPT are due to their colonic catabolites.

(Received January 26 2010)

(Accepted March 16 2010)


c1 Corresponding author: G. Williamson, fax +44 113 343 2982, email


Abbreviations: GIT, gastro-intestinal tract; PPT, phenols, polyphenols and tannins