Relationship of structure to nutritional quality bioavailability

The overall content of a given nutrient in a food is not always a useful indicator of its nutritional value because not all of the nutrient present is absorbed. Nutritionists must concern themselves with understanding the proportion of an avail able nutrient that is digested, absorbed, and ultimately utilised. In the case of nutrients or phytochemicals, whose beneficial effects are directed towards inhibiting degenerative diseases, it is important to know whether or not the nutrient is reaching the particular target organ and in a form which is active. Otherwise the claims for the health benefits of that chemical would not be justified, especially as it is difficult to demonstrate benefits from long-term human studies.

Diet plays an important role in the uptake of specific nutrients and phytochemicals. Those that are lipophilic are absorbed much more readily from a lipid-rich diet. Frying tomatoes in oil dramatically improves the uptake of lycopene compared with the consumption of fresh tomatoes.21 Raw carrots, which have high levels of pro-vitamin A carotenoids, are poorer sources of b-carotene than gently cooked carrot.22 The bioavailability of certain trace elements is increased on cooking or processing; for example, the bioavailability of iron is increased in canned spinach.23

The chemical form of the phytochemical present in food is very important in determining uptake through the gastro-intestinal tract. Quercitin-b-glucoside is more easily absorbed than the aglycone quercitin. Isorhamnetin-b-glucoside, which is chemically similar to quercitin, differing only by a single methoxyl group, is more readily absorbed. Flavonoid rutinosides (rhamnosyl 1-6 gluco-sides) are less easily absorbed.24 Thus whilst some phenols might be better antioxidants than others when tested in in vitro systems, this is of little significance in terms of health relevance. What matters is whether the compounds are easily absorbed, are not quickly degraded in tissues, and are able to reach the target sites. Flavonoids that are not absorbed undergo extensive degradation by gut microorganisms, and may play only a limited role in preventing oxidative damage in the colon.

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