Okay, I know that title is over the top, but it’s tongue-in-cheek as well. We hear so much about the value of antioxidants that I get a little unimpressed sometimes. But wait, this is the real deal. Everyone likes a list and the Nutrient Data Lab of the United States Department of Agriculture has released an updated ORAC list of the antioxidant power of plant foods.
Antioxidants rule, okay?
ORAC stands for ‘Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity’. Oxygen radicals or free radicals are reactive chemical particles created when an electron gets dislodged from a molecule leaving an unpaired electron. This makes the particle highly reactive. Oxygen radicals result from natural processes like digestion and metabolism but also from exposure to radiation and pollutants.
Antioxidants such as vitamin C, E and the mineral selenium are able to quench these free radicals and stop them from reacting with important molecules in the body like DNA and causing cancer and many other diseases. As well as antioxidant vitamins and minerals, a host of antioxidants exist as phytonutrients in plants. Polyphenols in red grapes and wine and cacao beans (chocolate) are well-publicised examples.
The ORAC database lists the scores for individual fruits, nuts, cereals, beans, herbs and vegetables. Here are my favourites. The higher the score, the greater the antioxidant capacity. The measures are in micromoles per 100 grams.
1. Herbs and spices. As a group these are powerful antioxidants. Values for tumeric, 159,000 and oregano 200,000 are good examples. Not all herbs and spices are as high as this, but when you see some other food scores you will understand how powerful these plants are in antioxidant value. On the other hand, we only consume them in comparatively small quantities compared to a whole apple for example.
2. Apples, raw. Both granny smith and red delicious are at the top of the apples scores at around 4000 units. You need to leave the skin on for best effect.
3. Red wine has excellent capacity, as we often read, at 5000 units compared to white wine at 400 per 100 grams. Raw grapes and grape juice are in the range of 800 to 1000, so you can see that processing the skins of red grapes in wine production seems to improve the antioxidant capacity substantially.
4. Artichokes (globe) cooked. Up around the 9000 units per 100 grams, so quite a powerful punch in this vegetable. I eat the canned varieties, lightly fried in olive oil, on vegetarian pizzas and in curries. Who would have thought it?
5. Chocolate, unsweetened, baking. Get your chocky fix and also around 50,000 units/100 grams. That’s a powerful dose, and if you keep the sugar and saturated fat low, quite a healthy dose as well. Cocoa powder is around 80,000/100 grams. A teaspoon of that is only a few grams.
6. Berries. Blueberries and blackberries are in the range 5000 to 6000, cranberries 9000, elderberries 14,000 and strawberries under 4000. I don’t know why blueberries seem to get all the publicity around the place. Apples and plums are close.
7. Plums, raw. 6000 to 7000 for various varieties and prunes even higher. Dried fruits generally rank higher than fresh fruits, so I’ve not included them here. (Dried fruits may be high in antioxidants but are also high in sugars, mainly fructose.)
8. Red cabbage, raw and cooked. In this case, the cooked red cabbage is 3000 and the raw cabbage closer to 2000. Again, processing the red tissue seems to release more antioxidants — like grapes. White cabbage is the same — cooked higher than uncooked — yet both are under 1000 units.
9. Nuts, raw. Most nuts are excellent. Almonds over 4000, pecans 17,000 and hazelnuts 9000, pistachios 7000 and walnuts 13,000.
10. Cereals and bran. Wholegrain consumption consistently shows up as protective for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Not surprising when some of these numbers are computed: rice bran 15,000; sorghum brans up to 240,000. Heavy wholegrain breads and cereals generally rate in the 2000 units range.
To summarise, there’s a powerful punch available in many herbs and spices, fruits and nuts and whole grains, and to a lesser extent, in many of our favourite vegetables. Carrots and tomatoes are surprisingly unimpressive, but that doesn’t mean this is the last word. It’s possible factors other than what is measured in this database are at work. And it seems to me that low-carbers who like to avoid most fruits are missing out on a lot of antioxidant variety and power.
Here’s what you could do to maximise your antioxidant consumption.
- Grow your own fruit and veges organically if possible. Recent analysis by Alyson Mitchell has shown that organically grown plants generally have higher antioxidant capacities than those conventionally grown. (An article on this is on the way.)
- Make regular use of powerful herbs and spices like ginger, tumeric, galangal, oregano, thyme and many others. Grow them when you are able.
- Eat plenty of non-starchy fruit and vegetables. That means adding lots of green leafy vegetables and non-starchy fruits and root vegetables to your bananas and potato consumption.
Eat daily of raw nuts and cooked whole grains.
- If you drink alcohol, a glass or two of red wine each day, preferably with meals, is a reasonable approach.