Antioxidants 101

March 17, 2014

Still not sure what foods contain antioxidants? Find out what antioxidants are and what foods contain the most here...

We have all heard of antioxidants by now and are aware that they have the potential to improve overall health, delay the onset of many age-related diseases, prevent macular eye disease and reduce the risk of some cancers. But what exactly are they? Find out here.

What are Antioxidants? Antioxidants are nothing more than vitamins, A, C and E, the mineral selenium and bioactive compounds like carotenoids and polyphenols found in foods. Our need for them is derived from a paradox in metabolism. Our bodies require oxygen to function, but oxygen, by itself, is highly reactive, and creates byproducts through oxidation. These byproducts, called free radicals, are potentially damaging to cells. Antioxidants, as the name reveals, can stabilize free radicals before they cause harm.

There’s more… Our body’s defense against oxidative stress decreases over time, which is why a diet rich in food containing antioxidants is needed as we age. Oxidation is a normal process that occurs in the body through normal cell function and metabolism- as well as from outside sources, which include pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke, motor vehicle emissions, and many other processes. Environmental free radicals then enter the body through the skin, respiration, and other means. Therefore, achieving a balance with an antioxidant rich diet is crucial to maintaining good health.

Antioxidants in food: A food's antioxidant power is measured in units called ORACs, or Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, referring to how much radical oxygen a food can absorb. The ORAC scale was developed by USDA researchers at Tufts University in order to inform the public about different foods antioxidant capacity.

Which foods contain the highest ORAC value? One hundred grams of grapes rates 739 on the ORAC scale; 100 grams of blueberries rates at 2,400, raspberries, 1,220. One hundred grams of kale and spinach contain 1,770 and 1,260 respectively. And chocolate? 100 grams contains a whopping 13,120 ORAC! (but be careful because that is unsweetened cacao and not a milk-chocolate bar).

Individual colors are important indicators - darker foods, like pomegranates (3,037 ORAC) and plums (949), tend to be more antioxidant-rich. Orange foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, and pumpkin contain beta-carotene. Lutein, known for its association with healthy eyes, is abundant in greens.

What to shop for?  Stick with the natural foods mentioned above as well as nuts, and grains. Some other vitamin A rich foods include liver, milk, and egg yolks. Vitamin E is found in broccoli, almonds, and mangos, while whole grains (and brazil nuts) provide selenium. Because it may be harder to absorb antioxidants from antioxidant-enhanced food products its best to stick with natural sources and the foods mentioned above, but if you feel you need a quick fix, look for products that clearly state the ORAC value of what’s inside - and do be mindful of sugar content and other nutrition don’ts.