Although scientists didn’t realize their significance until relatively recently, antioxidants are now thought to be important dietary nutrients. So, what are antioxidants, exactly? They’re substances in food which prevent damage to your body’s cells and tissues caused by free radicals. It’s important to keep free radicals in check, as they may contribute to aging, cancer and chronic diseases such as heart disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Certain vitamins, such as A, C, and E have antioxidant properties, as do bioflavonoids – free radical-fighting chemicals naturally present in certain plants. In general, fruits and vegetables are great sources of these substances. There are various methods of calculating the antioxidant value of foods, one of which is the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) assay, used by the USDA. Health officials currently recommend consuming about 3,000 to 5,000 ORAC units per day.
Bland food lovers, beware! When measured by weight, spices are the richest source of antioxidants. The type of spice with the greatest antioxidant capacity is cloves, with an exceptional ORAC value of almost 300,000 units. (Note, however, that ORAC value is calculated per 100 grams – please don’t try to eat 100 grams of cloves just for the antioxidants!) Other especially antioxidant-rich spices include oregano, rosemary, turmeric, thyme, cinnamon, sage and vanilla.
Bet you’re not too sad to hear that chocolate is an antioxidant super-food! Keep in mind, though, that the more processed chocolate is, the less antioxidants it typically contains. Pure, unsweetened cocoa powder and baking chocolate both have phenomenal ORAC values of around 50,000, and dark chocolate candies can range in the 20,000s. Steer clear of milk chocolate, which possesses a far weaker antioxidant power (and also contains a lot more fat and sugar than dark chocolate).
Coffee is another great source of antioxidants, with an ORAC value ranging from about 15,000 to 17,000, depending on brew time, type of bean and other factors. While the ORAC value of coffee is considerably less than those of spices and pure cocoa, consider that in terms of volume, we consume a lot more coffee than we do spices. In fact, based on a University of Scranton study published in 2005, coffee is the top source of antioxidants in the average American’s diet.
When it comes to fresh fruit, berries are the richest source of antioxidants. The Himalayan goji berry and the tropical Acai berry top the list with respective ORAC values of about 25,000 and 18,500, although less-exotic berries like raspberries, blueberries and blackberries are also excellent sources of antioxidants. Other antioxidant-rich berries include elderberries, chokeberries, cranberries and strawberries.
Nuts are jam-packed with antioxidants, while also providing protein, fiber and healthy fats. Pecans are the best source of antioxidants among nuts, with an ORAC value of close to 18,000. Walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios and almonds also have ORAC values in the multi-thousands.
6. Dried Fruit
Dried fruit is a highly concentrated source of antioxidants by weight since the fruit’s water content has been removed. The dried fruits with the strongest antioxidant effects include raisins (dried grapes), with an ORAC value topping 10,000, and prunes (dried plums), which clock in at around 8,000. Dried figs, dates, apples, peaches and pears also pack a powerful antioxidant punch.
7. Fruit Juice
Like dried fruit, fruit juice is another super-concentrated source of antioxidants. Berry juices are the best, with the ORAC value of black raspberry juice, for example, coming in at around 10,000. Pomegranate juice, cherry juice and grape juice also have high ORAC values.
8. Cooked Vegetables
Cooked vegetables also make the top ten list of antioxidant-rich foods, with special emphasis on artichokes, red cabbage, red leaf lettuce, asparagus, spinach and broccoli. USDA researchers recently discovered that artichokes actually contain more antioxidants than any other cooked veggie, providing about 9,400 ORAC units.
Kidney beans and black beans are the best sources of antioxidants in the beans-and-legumes family, offering up ORAC values in the 8,000s. Pinto beans, lentils, and soybeans are terrific sources of antioxidants as well. Like nuts, beans also provide filling protein and fiber, making them a great weight loss food.
10. Colorful Fruits
In general, deeply pigmented fruits and vegetables have higher antioxidant capacities than less vibrant-looking produce (such as white potatoes, for example), as the protective bioflavonoids in plants are what supply them with rich colors. In addition to berries, other dark-colored fruits like pomegranate, plums, red apples, dark grapes and cherries are high in antioxidants (cherries have an ORAC vale of 4,700), as are brightly-colored fruits like guava and oranges.