Antioxidants in Food

May 20th, 2009

Antioxidants are compounds that help prevent and repair oxidative stress, a process that damages cells within the body and has been linked to the development of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Antioxidants are found primarily in fruits, vegetables and other plant foods, such as mushrooms and algae. Your body also manufactures certain antioxidants.  They work together in complementary and synergistic ways to protect and repair your cells and prevent disease. Different foods provide different antioxidants.  This is why it’s important to eat a wide variety of healthful foodsparticularly fruits and vegetables.

Unexpected Sources

Berries are rich in antioxidants. But these disease-fighting compounds can be found in many other fruits and vegetables as well, such as beans, artichokes and Russet potatoes. Nuts and spices — such as ground cloves, cinnamon, and oregano — are rich in antioxidants too, although they are generally consumed in much smaller amounts than fruits and vegetables.

Ranking Antioxidant-Rich Foods

A 2004 study assessed the antioxidant activity of more than 100 foods, including fruits, vegetables, cereals, breads, nuts, and spices. Here’s a list of the top 20 sources of antioxidants, per serving size:

1. Small red bean
2. Wild blueberry
3. Red kidney bean
4. Pinto bean
5. Cultivated blueberry
6.  Cranberry
7.  Artichoke
8.  Blackberry
9.  Prune
10. Raspberry
11. Strawberry
12. Red Delicious apple
13. Granny Smith apple
14. Pecan
15. Sweet cherry
16. Black plum
17. Russet potato
18. Black bean
19. Plum
20. Gala apple

Putting Antioxidants in Perspective

Registered dietitian David Grotto was amazed to see beans, potatoes and artichokes so highly ranked by the study:

“The message here is that a diverse diet is still optimal,” Grotto says. “You don’t want to be on the all-red-bean diet, because beans may not have the same antioxidants that you would find in a wild blueberry.”

Nor does it mean you should limit your diet to only foods in the top 20 list or start popping antioxidant supplements. Grotto remarks, “There is always more bang for the buck in eating real food. You get a lot of compounds that we really don’t fully understand the benefits of yet.”

Recently, several large-scale studies have found that taking antioxidant supplements has not led to reductions in disease or mortality rates. Alternately, diets high in anti-oxidant rich foods are consistently found to improve health and extend lifespan.

Get More Antioxidants

David Grotto gives these suggestions for incorporating more antioxidant-rich foods into your diet:

•    Substitute beans for meats. Most recipes that call for ground or cubed meats, such as stews and casseroles, also work well with beans like lentils, chickpeas or black beans.
•    Be berry sneaky. Toss a handful of berries on your breakfast cereal or blend them into fruit smoothies for a healthy breakfast or snack.
•    Make bean cubes. Process leftover beans with a little vegetable broth in a food processor until it forms a thin paste. Pour into ice cube trays. Then use the frozen cubes to thicken soups and sauces.