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A Plant Chemical May Have Big Health Benefits. But for Who?

USDA Grant to Support Study of Flavonoid’s Influence on Digestion of Beneficial Food Compounds

By Kimbra Cutlip

Heart-shaped illustration of fuirts, vegetables and chocolate

A new study from a UMD researcher aims to shed light on how different people's gut microbiomes respond to flavonoids, a chemical found in various fruits and vegetables.

Dark chocolates and red wine aren’t just Valentine’s Day staples. They can be powerful components of a healthy diet—at least for some of us.

Along with blueberries, apples, green tea and leafy veggies, the list of foods and beverages that contain the plant chemicals called flavonoids is nearly endless. While they may help ward off heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, inflammation and dementia, among other ills, studies of exactly how much of which flavonoids are needed for a specific health outcome are far from clear. That’s partly because not everyone benefits from flavonoids in the same way.

Supported by a $637,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a new study from a University of Maryland researcher aims to shed light on how our individual digestive systems could make flavonoids more or less available to the body.

“We want to know if people are more responsive to flavonoids because their gut microbiomes function differently, and if we can predict who will benefit based on the presence of certain microbiome indicators in their gut,” said Associate Professor of Nutrition and Food Science Margaret Slavin, a registered dietitian.

She is recruiting 300 people ages 18-45 for the first part of the study: Participants will be given a soy snack to eat for three days, and then asked to provide a urine sample. Out of those, 30 participants will be given six days of meals, and Slavin will test their gut microbiome as they consume the different meals.

In the second part of the study, instead of examining how participants’ gut microbiomes break down flavonoids in soy, she will be looking at how their gut biota digest apples. Slavin will try to verify if a single chemical signal can be used to identify the breakdown of both.

There are thousands of flavonoids, and having one chemical signal, or marker, for flavonoid breakdown in the gut will make it much easier to identify who might benefit most from adding them to their diet. It would also make it easier to study flavonoid digestion and accessibility in the body and whether that plays a role in why flavonoids are more beneficial to some people than others.

“Our study is a step in the direction of more personalized nutrition recommendations,” Slavin said. “Because if we’re able to see who benefits more from eating flavonoids, it could inform decisions about, say, whether or not to spend the extra money to have that serving of berries, for example.”

To learn more about the study, visit



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