KEYLEAF: Specialists in Extracting Bioactive Compounds from Plants for Use in Nutritional Applications

They’re called bioactive compounds or, simply, bioactives– a type of molecule found in plants, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains that when consumed in adequate amounts, can improve function of the human body and promote health benefits such as the prevention of cancer, heart disease, premature aging, stroke, and other degenerative conditions.  

“Researchers have noted that many bioactive compounds have powerful antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, and there is a continued growing demand for them for use in medicinal and nutritional applications,” says Dr. Thushan S. Withana-Gamage, KeyLeaf’s Principal Scientist for Innovation and Technology. “Not only are they being extracted from plant and animal sources, but many companies are also attempting to synthesize these bioactive compounds through precision fermentation in single cell microorganisms such as fungi, algae and bacteria.”

How many plant-derived bioactive compounds are there? The exact number is unknown, but researchers say just a single plant can contain thousands of different bioactives. These compounds can be broadly grouped into several categories. Below is a partial list of the major compound categories along with their plant source(s) and reported health benefits:


1. Polyphenols:  Extracted from Spanish red grapes, blueberries, and green tea, most polyphenols work as antioxidants in the body acting as free radical scavengers, combating environmental harm such as UV damage and pollution. These bioactives may offer protection against certain cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases.

2. Phytosteroids: These compounds are found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts. They may help to safely lower cholesterol levels and reduce health risks such as heart attack and stroke. They may also help prevent obesity, diabetes, and cancer.

3. Terpenoids:  Aromatic compounds such as terpenoids are found in the oils of all plants. With more than 20,000 terpenoids, they are highly esteemed for their medicinal properties and widely used in the form of essential oils, flavors and fragrances.

4. Carotenoids: These bioactive pigments produce the bright yellow, red, and orange colors in plants, vegetables, and fruits. Carotenoids are antioxidants and are associated with enhanced immune function along with improved cardiovascular health and lowered cancer risk.

5. Glucosinolates: These sulfur-containing compounds found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and broccoli seed, kale, and brussels sprouts can have an antibiotic-like effect and help ward off bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. Studies suggest that maintaining a diet rich in glucosinolates may lower the risk of certain cancers.

6. Alkaloids: Throughout history, extracts from plants containing alkaloids have had medicinal uses as drugs. Today more than 3,000 alkaloids have been identified in over 4,000 different plant species. Well-known alkaloids include morphine, strychnine, quinine, atropine, caffeine, ephedrine, and nicotine.

7.  Peptides:  Research shows bioactive compounds called peptides that are extracted from plants such as beans, peas, lentils, soy, oats, flaxseed, hemp seeds, and wheat may lower blood pressure, kill microbe, reduce inflammation, improve immune function, and fight free radicals in the body.

8.  Polysaccharides: These bioactive compounds (and the structurally related compound beta glucan) are found in the cell walls of mushrooms and demonstrate anti-tumor, immunomodulatory, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anti-diabetic properties when added to the diet. They also aid digestion.

9. Triterpenes: These bioactive compounds are found abundantly in chaga and Reishi mushrooms and have been shown to have an array of health benefits including boosting immune function, reducing viral infection and inflammation, destroying cancer cells, reducing fatigue, and lowering blood sugar.    

10. PUFAs - Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acids: EPA and DHA fatty acids are the two main bioactive components responsible for algal oil’s numerous health benefits, which include elevated mood, improved eye health, heart health, brain health, reduced inflammation, and many more.  



“When extracting bioactive compounds, our primary challenge is to extract all available bioactive content from the plant,” says Dr. Withana-Gamage. “Some plants, such as Chaga mushrooms, must be chopped from trees in the wild by hand and are very costly to harvest - it’s a very expensive feedstock - so you need to be sure to extract most of the bioactive compounds in that mushroom to make the extraction worthwhile.  That’s the challenge.  That’s why you might need to use several different types of extraction methods: water extraction followed by solvent extraction, followed by extracting with centrifuge, followed by cold pressing.  This ‘broad spectrum’ extraction strips the plant source of all or most of its bioactive compounds and produces a long list of high-value, health-promoting bioactives at 90-95%purity.”


KeyLeaf has a long history in the extraction and processing of bioactive omega-3 DHA and EPA fatty acids derived from algal oil for use in the nutritional supplement industry.  

“To access and extract algae’s bioactive oils, we break down the algae cell walls using a process called bead milling, which bombards the algae with tiny metal beads, allowing the algae’s oil to separate from its cell walls,” says Dr. Withana-Gamage. The crushed algae slurry is then placed into a separation media - which could be water or other solvent.  You then remove the water or solvent and you are left with the crude algae oil, containing the DHA and EPA and other fatty acids, along with debris from the broken algae cells.”

Dr. Withana-Gamage says this "crude oil” containing DHA and EPA is now ready for downstream purification-- a process where the oil may be purified, bleached, deodorized, refined, winterized, and ready for consumption or other application based on the customer’s needs.

“The oil can also be enriched, where DHA and EPA concentrations are increased through a process called short path distillation,” he says.



“Most of the start-up companies marketing medicinal plants or herb extractions do lots of research at an academic level, but they rarely have any practical knowledge or hands-on experience on how to properly scale-up their processing facilities in order to increase production effectively and safely,” says Dr. Withana-Gamage. “That’s the type of information KeyLeaf is able to provide to the client by doing R&D trials in the lab.  Along with more than four decades experience working with plant extracts, this lab work enables KeyLeaf scientists to understand the properties and requirements of the materials being processed and identifies, on a case-by-case basis, the best procedures and equipment to use to produce results that meet or exceed client expectations.”




2. (phytosteroids)

3.  (terpenoids)

4.  (carotenoids)

5.  (glucosinolates)

6.     alkaloids

7.  (peptides)

8. (polysaccharides)



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