Antioxidant content is often used by producers as a positive product feature to charge more for their food. They have been associated with many benefits like anti-aging and anti-cancer properties. Find out how you benefit from antioxidants and what the most powerful antioxidant rich foods are.
What are antioxidants?
Most people have heard about antioxidants and know it’s good to have more of them but most don’t really know what antioxidants really do for their health.
Our body is composed of different cell types with atoms as their smallest building stones. In healthy cells atoms are in stable bonds and form molecules. As you probably can remember from your schooldays atoms have negatively charged electrons circling around a positively charged center. When atoms lose electrons from their outer layer they become unstable and highly reactive. These unstable elements are called free radicals. By nature all atoms and molecules try to achieve balance and stability. That’s why free radicals try to bond with nearby atoms to “steal” their electrons to be stable again. That on the other hand makes the attacked atom unstable who also tries to bond with an nearby atom, starting a chain reaction in your body that can damage healthy cells.
Antioxidants are natural substances that are traveling your system, giving electrons to unstable free radicals which makes them stable again. This way antioxidants prevent cell damage. The theory is that the more antioxidants you have the less cell damage will occur in your body preventing oxidative stress-related diseases like cancer or cardio-vascular disease.
Free radicals are normal byproducts of many processes happening in our body. They aren’t always the ‘bad guys’ either. For example, the immune system can produce free radicals to bond with bacteria and viruses to prevent us from getting sick. If you’re eating a healthy diet with fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants your body can take care of free radicals by itself.
On the other hand if you’re not supplying your body with enough antioxidants, free radicals start damaging healthy cells. If you’re additionally exposing your body to alcohol, pollution, cigarette smoke or excessive sun exposure the formation of free radicals can escalate, making it impossible for the body to neutralize the damage of free radicals. That way cells are destroyed and reversing the damage made, is often impossible.
Do antioxidants really fight cancer?
In theory the more antioxidants you have circulating in your body the less damaged cells you have. It is believed that damage to tissues from free radicals contributes to cancer formation. That’s why many researchers have looked at antioxidants for cancer prevention and treatment. It turns out that the relation between cancer and antioxidants isn’t as simple as believed in the beginning. Studies have found that supplementation of antioxidants had no benefit and may even increase the risk of cancer.
Other studies on the other hand have confirmed the benefits of an antioxidant rich diet to reduce the risk of certain cancers. Scientist still don’t understand the complex relations between antioxidants and cancer yet. So should we stock up on fruits and vegetables after all, and which foods are the most effective?
Results of trials testing antioxidants against various diseases were mixed and research papers looking at the effects antioxidants have on living cells have found that antioxidants can prevent damage of cells from free radicals. Simply taking a bunch of antioxidants in a tablet doesn’t do the trick though – it seems to be important where those antioxidants are coming from.
It matters where they come from – antioxidants from food or supplements
Simply taking antioxidants as supplements isn’t the answer to protecting your health. As mentioned before in several trials antioxidant supplementation made the outcome for patients even worse.
Antioxidants from whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are not only rich in antioxidants but have vitamins, minerals and other helpful micro elements. It seems that antioxidants taken from food are better used by the body than antioxidant supplements. That’s why a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds and nuts is the best source of antioxidants and protection against cell damage.
Sources of antioxidants
An extensive study of antioxidant content analyzed 3100 food items. This is the biggest database of antioxidant contents up to day. As a rule antioxidant content is highest in spices, herbs, berries, fruits, nuts, chocolate, and vegetables. Animal based products have minimal to no antioxidant content compared to fruits and vegetables. The study defined several food groups and analyzed their antioxidant content.
The highest antioxidant content was found in unprocessed tea leaves, tea powders and coffee beans. Prepared coffee showed big variations from low to high concentrations, depending on the coffee brand. Other beverages high in antioxidants are red wine, pomegranate juice, prepared green tea, grape juice, prune juice and black tea.
Breakfast cereals, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds
Buckwheat, millet and barley flours are the flours with the highest antioxidant values. Crisp bread and whole meal bread with fiber are the grain products containing most antioxidants. Beans and lentils have mean antioxidant values. Walnuts have the highest antioxidant value among nuts.
Antioxidant values in chocolate can range from low to high depending on the content of cocoa. The higher the content of cocoa the higher the antioxidant value. Products with 70-99% cocoa content had the most antioxidants.
Dairy products, desserts and cakes, eggs, fats and oils
Overall this group is not a high source of antioxidants. The highest antioxidant value in this group is among fats and oils. Margarine, butter, canola, corn and soybean oil have the highest antioxidant content. When deciding which fat to use antioxidant content is certainly not the only criteria that should be looked at since margarine, corn and soybean oil aren’t really healthy fats. Extra virgin olive oil has low antioxidant values with most brands under 0.4 mmol/100 g. The antioxidant content of dairy and desserts was raised when berries or chocolate were added.
Berries, fruit and vegetables
Foods from this category had high antioxidant values on average. The berries with the most antioxidant values are a little bit ‘exotic’ since their hard to come by. Most of us don’t eat dog rose, dried amla or wild bilberries on a regular basis. Examples of more common antioxidant rich berries are fresh black currants, wild strawberries, blackberries, goji berries and cranberries.
Fruits and vegetables showed a range from very low to high antioxidant values. Most common foods that are available to us and are high in antioxidants are in this category. Dried apples, flour made of okra, artichokes, lemon skin, dried plums, dried apricots, curly kale, red and green chili and prunes are examples of fruits and vegetables with high antioxidant content. Examples of fruit and vegetables in the medium antioxidant range were dried dates, dried mango, black and green olives, red cabbage, red beets, paprika, guava and plums.
Spices and herbs
Spices and herbs on average have also a high antioxidant content measured in a sample of 100 g. It is almost impossible to use that much herbs in every day cooking. Herbs give meals a fresh note and it’s good to use them and get some antioxidants value, but don’t forget that we are mostly using only small amounts when cooking. Clove, peppermint, allspice, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, saffron and estragon, all dried and ground are examples of herbs with the most antioxidant value.
Soups, sauces, gravies and dressings
This category is generally low in antioxidants except tomato based soups and sauces.
Meat, poultry and fish
Almost all the products in this category are very low in antioxidants or don’t have any antioxidant value at all. That’s one of the reasons why the typical western diet rich in meat, fat and carbohydrates is suspected to be one of the main contributors to oxidative stress-related diseases like cancer and cardio vascular disease.
What are the most common foods with the most antioxidant content then? Here is an antioxidant rich foods list:
- Sunflower seeds
- Curly kale
- Red, orange, yellow bell peppers
- Sundried tomatoes
- Blue cauliflower
- Red cabbage
- Brussel sprouts
- Black and green olives
- Lemon skin
- Dried apricots
- Dried apple
- Dried mango
- Dried plums
- Pomegranate juice
- Black berries
- Wild black currant
- Dried Goji berries
- Sour cherries
- Wild strawberry
Sweets and beverages:
- Cacao for baking
- Chocolate with 70% cocoa
- Espresso, prepared