So you’ve made the decision to eat a better diet, which means eating less fast food and adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet. Congratulations! In addition to weight-management benefits, many fruits and vegetables are loaded with powerful antioxidants, which can help your body fight the stresses of oxidation that have been linked to cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and even aging itself. Chances are you’ve seen a story or two on so-called “super foods,” with foods such as red kidney beans, blueberries and tomatoes. One caveat that is rarely mentioned — much of the antioxidant power of these foods occurs only in their raw form. That’s not so much a problem with blueberries (delicious raw), but very problematic with red kidney beans (not edible raw).
Here are five food types ranked according to their antioxidant power, based on a database maintained by the United States Department of Agriculture. You’ll find no mention of raw foods that you don’t eat, and no rare foods (elderberries, chokeberries, etc.) that are never available at your local grocer. Instead, here are five readily available foods with tremendous antioxidant powers.
5. Red Wine
First, to appreciate the relative antioxidant power of the foods on this list, it helps to understand a little about how the USDA database rates the foods. More than 300 foods have been tested for their Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC), a measure of their ability to inhibit oxidation. Sounds complicated, but you don’t have to hold a Ph.D. in chemistry to understand that the higher the ORAC value, the more powerful the antioxidant properties of the food. Ranking first among the drinks tested in the USDA study is Cabernet Sauvignon, with an ORAC value of 4,523 (another red wine, Merlot, registered a less impressive 2,670). But for comparison purposes, those ORAC values top that of such noted antioxidants as green tea (1,253 ORAC) and canned vegetable juice (548). Obviously, this isn’t a green light to drink a bottle of wine every night. Moderation is important. Several studies in recent years have shown the potential health benefits of a glass or two of wine each night with dinner.
OK, no one said all the foods on this list would be tasty, and artichokes are a case in point. Their slimy appearance and chewy texture repels many people. But they’re loaded with antioxidants, topping the vegetables on this list with an ORAC value of 9,416. Other highly rated vegetables include cilantro (5,183 ORAC); broccoli (3,083 ORAC raw, or 1,590 cooked); boiled red cabbage (3,145); sweet potato with skin (2,115); raw chives (2,094); and radishes (1,750). Also scoring well in antioxidant values were baked russet potatoes with skin, asparagus, red onions, and spinach. If you want to munch on some raw garlic (5,708 ORAC value), you might be doing your health a favor, but probably not your personal life.
By now, you may be wondering about one extremely notable omission: Tomatoes, which are rightly touted for their many health benefits. Raw tomatoes scored a very low 387 ORAC value, one of the lower values of all vegetables tested. This is despite the fact that tomatoes may be the best source of the carotene lycopene, a powerful antioxidant.
Nuts in general rate very well in terms of antioxidants. Pecans, with a 17,940 ORAC rating, led the way, but english walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds and raw peanuts all fared well. It’s worth noting that nuts are one of the most calorie-rich foods around, so add these to your diet in moderation. And some cans or bags of nuts are loaded with unhealthy amounts of sodium.
Finally, a food that everyone — or most everyone — can agree tastes great and is good for you. Chocolates rate well across the board, according to the USDA study. The darker the chocolate, the better, however; milk chocolate candies scored a 7,519 ORAC; dark chocolate candies registered a value of 20,816. Chocolate is loaded with calories and fat, so moderation is key. Several studies in recent years have shown that chocolate may have many other health benefits. For example, the American Academy of Neurology released a report in 2010 that suggested eating chocolate might lower your risk of stroke, and reduce your risk of death following a stroke.
Checking in at the top of the list among fruits and vegetables is the acai berry, with an astronomic ORAC value of 102,700. Virtually unknown a few years ago, acai berries have become the rock stars of the antioxidant world. Predictably, scam artists have tried to cash in, touting supplements they guarantee pack the antioxidant punch of acai berries; many of these are little more than placebos. If you can’t locate acai berries, don’t fret — the much more common cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries all boast very high ORAC values of between 4,000 and 10,000. It’s also worth noting that raw berries are better — for example, cranberry juice has about 20 percent the ORAC capacity of the raw berries.
If you’re curious, here’s a look at the USDA antioxidant database so you can see where your favorite foods rated in terms of their antioxidant properties.
The author has provided feature content for the websites of medical doctors and has written for the health and fitness website Livestrong.com.