Antioxidants — they’re super good for you, so you should eat a ton of them! Well, at least that’s what we hear of them so often. “Antioxidant” has become a sort of marketing buzzword in the healthy food world. Food labels and health articles tout their ability to cure illness, prevent disease, and even slow the aging process. But what exactly are they, and how do they work their magic?
The story of antioxidants boils down to a whole bunch of chemistry that goes on inside our bodies. During normal bodily functions, such as metabolism and breathing, molecules can split up, lose an electron and become unstable. Other environmental factors like pollution, cigarette smoke and radiation can produce an excess of these molecules which are called free radicals. Free radicals begin to attack healthy cells nearby to steal their electrons to replace the ones they lost. This transfer of electrons is called oxidation. In turn, these healthy cells are weakened and can also become free radicals, creating a detrimental chain reaction. Oxidation is a normal and crucial part of life, but an excess of free radicals can cause cell damage that may be associated with heart disease, cancer, and other degenerative diseases associated with aging.
This is where antioxidants come in! A variety of enzymes, vitamins and minerals have anti-oxidation properties; thus, they are called antioxidants. Antioxidants stop the oxidation process by giving up their own electrons and neutralizing free radicals, so healthy cells are protected from damage.
Common antioxidants include the following:
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) protects the body from infection and damage to cells. Vitamin C helps produce collagen, which is good for your skin, bones, and connective tissue. It promotes healing and helps the body absorb iron and folate. Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits and tangerines), strawberries, and broccoli are rich in Vitamin C.
Vitamin E plays a role in the immune system and metabolic processes. It helps the body make red blood cells and aids in the absorption of vitamin K. Vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and leafy greens are rich in Vitamin E.
Vitamin A is important for vision, bone growth, reproduction, and skin health. Apricots, red and green leaf lettuce, cantaloupe, dark leafy greens, carrots, and sweet potatoes are rich in Vitamin A.
Carotenoids include beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein. They are responsible for the bright colors in carrots, squash, broccoli, tomatoes, kale, and sweet potatoes.
Polyphenols and Flavonoids are found in berries, pomegranates, legumes, red wine, chocolate, tea, and olive oil.
Scientists have created a test to measure a food’s antioxidant strength, or its ability to fight free radicals. This test is called the oxygen radical absorbance capacity test, or the ORAC test, and values can be found here: http://oracvalues.com/sort/orac-value.
At the top of this list, you will find a number of delicious spices including cloves, oregano, thyme, cinnamon and turmeric. Other foods with exceptionally high ORAC values are:
Cocoa: Unsweetened cocoa powder and baking chocolate have very high ORAC values. Dark chocolate does, too. Milk chocolate and super processed chocolate do not!
Beans: Kidney, black, red beans
Nuts: Walnuts, pecans, almonds
A balanced, colorful diet can provide you with many powerful antioxidants that will keep free radicals in check.