Recent claims about the Acai Berry Diet, "super-antioxidant foods" and ORAC values have led to confusion about the benefits, sources and role of antioxidants.
Why are antioxidants so important? Where do we get them? And what exactly is an ORAC? Here are the basics to help clear up the confusion.
Antioxidants are substances or nutrients in our foods which can prevent or slow the oxidative damage to our body. When our body cells use oxygen, they naturally produce by-products called free radicals which can cause damage. Free radicals may also be further produced by improper diet, strenuous exercise, tobacco, alcohol, stress and polluted air.
Many chronic and degenerative diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, macular degeneration, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's, are thought to be caused, in part, by oxidative stress from free radicals. Oxidative stress has also been linked to the process of aging.
The only way to combat free radicals is to neutralize them with antioxidants. Antioxidants act as "free radical scavengers" which prevent and repair damage done by these free radicals. Antioxidants may also enhance immune defense, lowering the risk of infection.
Though nature provides the body with some antioxidants, there is always a need to constantly replenish our antioxidant supply each day.
Sources of Antioxidants
Foods such as fruits, nuts, and vegetables have long been considered to be excellent sources of antioxidants. Common antioxidants found in food are phytochemicals (such flavonoids/polyphenols), lycopene and lutein.
A number of minerals and vitamins have a role as dietary antioxidants in addition to their other biological functions. These include vitamin A and carotenoids, vitamin C, vitamin E (including tocopherols and tocotrienols), and selenium. There are also vitamin-like antioxidant sources such as CoQ10 and glutathione.
ORAC stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, and rates foods according to their antioxidant content. The higher the ORAC score, the greater the food's antioxidant capacity. ORAC tests are often used to compare the antioxidant activities of different foods (fruits, vegetables, juices, wines, etc
Such comparisons can be valuable, but they do carry limitations. First, ORAC analyses are not extremely precise. When one food is tested multiple times in a given laboratory, ORAC rating score can vary 10-15% from one sample to the next. Second, different laboratories conduct ORAC testing in different ways, and often produce very different results. Third, different orange juices, for example, that were manufactured and diluted in different ways, and stored under different conditions, can actually have very different antioxidant activities, such that it is difficult to assign a meaningful ORAC score to orange juice in general. And lastly, product comparisons may not be for equal amounts; some are based on servings, others on wet weight, still others on dry weight. This can, for instance, lead to raisins having a much higher ORAC value than the grapes from which they came.
Foods that consistently score high on the ORAC ratings are spices (cinnamon, turmeric, oregano, cloves), berries (wild blueberries, tart cherries, elderberries, chokeberries, cranberries), legumes (red, pinto and kidney beans), grains (sorghum, rice bran, flax), chocolate (cocoa powder, baking chocolate), nuts (pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios). Common fruits such as apples, apricots, plums, cherries, pears, as well as greens such as artichoke hearts, broccoli, asparagus and cabbage, also are near the top of the list. Green tea and dark juices have high ORAC values as well.
Recently, a number of companies have capitalized on the ORAC rating, with dozens selling concentrated supplements that they claim to be "the number one ORAC product". Most of these values have never been published in the scientific literature so are difficult to evaluate. It is not known whether such values are accurate or how absorbable and functional these concentrated antioxidants are in the human body.
The Bottom Line
There is no one magic or best source of antioxidants. There are numerous, diverse antioxidants with unique benefits, and the key is to focus on getting the optimal daily amount from a variety of sources. If you get all your daily antioxidants from one individual fruit, drink or single vitamin (such as A or C), it can actually be at the expense of all the other beneficial antioxidants.
To get the maximum potential from antioxidants, eat a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and drinks such as green tea. In addition, an excellent way to ensure that you are getting the full spectrum of antioxidants is with a complete daily vitamin/mineral complex that includes a comprehensive range of antioxidants – not just one or two.
Here are the antioxidants supplied by Basic Nutrient Support:
• "Basic Antioxidants" Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium
• Fruits and Vegetables Complex (extracts of "high ORAC" foods such as wild blueberries, apricots, peaches, broccoli, carrots, kale, and 18 other fruits and vegetables)
• Carotenoid Complex
• Citrus Bioflavonoids Complex
• Tocotrienol complex
• Broccoli Flower and Cabbage Leaf Extracts
• Tomato Fruit
• Black Pepper Fruit Extracts
• Green Tea Leaf Extract
• Grape Seed and Grape Skin Extract
• Alpha-lipoic acid
• PABA and Rutin