What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidant is a broad term to describe a wide variety of substances that reduce oxidation in the body. Antioxidants of different varieties can be found in many fruits, nuts, and spices. Some of the most common antioxidants include vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium (found in tuna, shrimp, sardines, and salmon). Other antioxidant components include polyphenols such as carotenoids (yellow, orange, and red colored fruits and vegetables), isoflavones (soy products), flavonoids (found in green tea), and proanthocyanidins (dark berries, nuts, and chocolate/cacao).
What do Antioxidants do?
Antioxidants reduce the harmful effects of excess free radicals in our bodies. Free radicals are the result of natural and healthy bodily functions but too much of them can lead to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been shown to lead to many prominent health issues such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and heart disease. Oxidative stress can also lead to aging more quickly in addition to causing damage to cell tissues, muscles, and organs.
Benefits of Reducing Oxidative Stress
While there are many harmful diseases associated with excess free radicals and rampant oxidative stress, there are more benefits than just preventing those diseases! Some major benefits of antioxidants and low levels of oxidative stress include:
- Reducing visible effects of aging
- Improving skin health
- Reducing toxins in the body
- Lower risk of cognitive decline
- Reduced risk of developing cancer
Understanding ORAC Score
Before we delve into antioxidant containing foods, it is important to know how food scientists measure antioxidants in foods! Antioxidants are measured using an Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) test which determines how effective any given tested food item is at neutralizing free radicals.
The most important thing to note about the ORAC test is that it is (unless otherwise noted) based off of a 100 gram test of any given food. So when you’re thinking in terms of dietary portions, it is much more realistic that you will be eating 100 grams of berries as opposed to 100 grams of dried turmeric. To give you a better idea of what I mean, let’s do some simple conversions:
100 grams is equal to:
- ⅔ cup chopped nuts
- About one cup of fresh berries
- ⅔ cup chopped fruits or vegetables
- About one cup of dry, ground spice (will vary from spice to spice and coarseness of grind)
Now that we have a good sense of how antioxidants are measured in foods, let’s take a look at some of the best antioxidant containing foods! All ORAC scores referenced here (unless otherwise linked) are available to view in the USDA Database for the ORAC of Selected Foods (2010).
- Goji berries (ORAC score: 25,300)
Goji berries contain beta-carotene which is a powerful antioxidant! Beta-carotene is a carotenoid which gives goji berries their bright orange/red coloring.
- Choke berries (ORAC score: 16,062)
- Blueberries (ORAC score: 14,000)
Blueberries get their antioxidants from many components including proanthocyanidins. It’s been shown that wild blueberries have higher ORAC scores, so check if your local farmer’s market if you live in an area where blueberries grow wild! Or you can always harvest them yourself, just be clear on the foraging regulations where you live!
- Elderberries (ORAC score: 14,000)
Elderberries contain flavonoids which have powerful antioxidant properties! Despite their lesser pupularity, elderberries rank higher in flavonoids than blueberries, blackberries, goji berries, and cranberries! Be sure to use elderberry only in a ripe, cooked form that is produced for consumption. Uncooked elderberries can cause diarrhea and vomiting.
- Cranberries (ORAC score: 9,500)
Cranberries contain the antioxidant compounds quercetin and anthocyanins. Quercetin is a powerful antioxidant present in many fruits, berries, artichokes, and olive oil. Anthocyanins are antioxidant compounds which occur in berries with dark blue, red and purple color.
- Blackberries (ORAC score: 5,905)
Blackberries contain many healthy properties including quercetin and anthocyanins.
Artichokes contain several antioxidant compounds including the flavonoid quercetin, a powerful antioxidant. They have an ORAC score of 9,416!
Herbs and Spices (dry, ground)
There are such a wide and tasty variety of herbs and spices that are high in antioxidants! Many of them you probably already have in your spice cupboard at home. Try incorporating more of these spices into your daily meals for an antioxidant boost!
- Clove (ORAC score: 314,446)
- Cinnamon (ORAC score: 267,536)
- Oregano (ORAC score: 265,700)
- Turmeric (ORAC score: 183,200)
- Thyme (ORAC score: 163,700)
- Nutmeg (ORAC score: 118,700)
- Cumin (ORAC score: 77,831)
- Parsley (ORAC score: 74,349)
- Ginger (ORAC score 41,900)
Most nuts get their antioxidant properties from a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, as well as from various polyphenols including proanthocyanidins.
- Pecans (ORAC score: 17,940)
- Walnuts (ORAC score: 13,541)
- Hazelnuts or Filberts (ORAC score: 9,645)
- Pistachio nuts (ORAC score: 7,675)
- Peanuts (ORAC score: 3,166)
When it comes to chocolate and antioxidants, the less processing, the better! Dark chocolates contain more antioxidant properties than their milk chocolate and semi-sweet counterparts.
- Dark chocolate (ORAC score: 24,600)
- Semi-sweet chocolate (ORAC score: 19,030)
- Milk chocolate (ORAC score: 10,430)
A red wine has antioxidant properties including polyphenols from the grape juice and skins. A Cabernet Sauvignon wine has the ORAC score of 4,523! Since white and rosé wine contain less (or no) grape skins, they have lower ORAC scores than a red wine.
In addition to containing antioxidant vitamins and minerals, moringa has several antioxidant compounds including polyphenols and flavonoids. Moringa is also rich in zeatin, a powerful antioxidant which has been shown to prevent cognitive decline and slowing the effects of aging. Several studies to determine the antioxidant capacity of moringa in various forms (leaf, seed, and extract) have been researched in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Lipids in Health and Disease, and Food and Chemical Toxicology for the British Industrial Biological Research Association.
Green tea has powerful flavonoid antioxidants which have been shown to reduce oxidative stress. Hence green tea’s relatively high ORAC score of 1,253!
What are your favorite antioxidant containing foods? Let us know in the comments!
Still curious to know more about antioxidants and moringa?
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