With the recent surge in marketing enthusiasm over organic products, ‘superfoods,’ and antioxidant-rich foods, consumers are becoming more educated on the quality and nutrient content of the foods they consume. Antioxidants are the body’s source of protection from free radical damage. The importance of antioxidants in our diets is becoming more heavily researched. There are dozens of foods that have antioxidant properties; however, not all are created equal.
There are a few vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals) that are classified as antioxidants. Phytochemicals include carotenoids, flavonoids, and polyphenols. Some of the most acclaimed antioxidants include vitamins A, C, and E, beta-carotene, selenium, and the carotenoid lycopene. Carotenoids are typically red, orange, or deep yellow plant pigments that provide color to food and vegetables. Other examples of antioxidants include zinc, manganese, and copper.
There are several fruits and vegetables that contain a significant amount of antioxidants. High antioxidant fruits include prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, red grapes, cherries, kiwi fruit, and pink grapefruit. Antioxidant-rich vegetables include kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli flowers, beets, red bell pepper, onions, corn, and eggplant. Some antioxidant rich foods that have recently gained interest include tart cherries, wolf berries, Goji berries, and Acai berries. Whole grains are rich in antioxidants due to their selenium and vitamin E content. Tea, which is a source of the phytochemical known as flavonoids, is often ranked as high, if not higher, than many fruits and vegetables.
In 2004, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a list of the top 20 antioxidant-rich foods. The foods were ordered from highest to lowest in antioxidant activity, dependent upon the following portion sizes:
- Small red beans: ½ cup
- Wild blueberries: 1 cup
- Red kidney beans: ½ cup
- Pinto beans: ½ cup
- Blueberries (cultivated): 1 cup
- Whole cranberries: 1 cup
- Cooked artichokes: 1 cup hearts
- Blackberries: 1 cup
- Prunes: ½ cup
- Raspberries: 1 cup
- Strawberries: 1 cup
- Red Delicious apples: 1
- Granny Smith apples: 1
- Pecans: 1 ounce
- Sweet cherries: 1 cup
- Black plums: 1
- Cooked Russet Potatoes: 1
- Black Beans: ½ cup
- Plums: 1
- Gala apples: 1
Research conducted in 2010 at the University of Oslo in Norway highlighted the difficult nature of classifying antioxidants, as the antioxidant content of a food consumed and the successive antioxidant activity in the target cell is variable. A direct relationship is not inevitable, and this factor makes it scientifically difficult to determine which foods with antioxidants are the healthiest. A French study completed in 2005 suggested that several factors might play a role in the bioavailability of phytochemical antioxidants such as absorption and metabolism of food. More extensive research on these factors in the future will allow for a more accurate hierarchy and classification of antioxidant foods.
Make sure to consume high antioxidant foods with each meal. Several foods are fortified with antioxidants like vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and selenium. Fresh fruits and vegetables, however, are the best sources of antioxidants, as they contain other phytochemicals that are healthier than cooked or processed foods. When buying these products at the grocery store, be aware that produce that is bought fresh frozen may be healthier than the produce that is left to over mature on the shelves.
When planning your next meal, take the time to survey the foods you have chosen and determine if you have at least one antioxidant food amidst your ingredients. Chances are that it is simple to incorporate a fruit, vegetable, or a type of bean into the meal you have already planned. Building up your body’s ability to fight free radicals is an essential part of the equation to better health.