Is the Antioxidant Era Over?

Could it be that antioxidants are so last year.

The term certainly garners a lot of attention on a label. Apparently, up to 60 percent of shoppers who see an antioxidant claim on a product label will buy it for that reason.

Yet many experts say antioxidants are misunderstood and often over hyped. It’s true that fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants. Even popcorn and coffee contain antioxidants. And that’s all good. But maybe it’s become silly to fight over who has more.

ORACThe bragging rights all come down to a little test called ORAC, which stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity.  It’s an analysis that’s done in a test tube to estimate the potential antioxidant levels in foods.  It measures free radical scavenging activity and the inhibition of oxidation.  The test is valid, but maybe it’s being misused, says Darryl Sullivan who works in a lab that conducts ORAC tests. John Finley, PhD, professor of food science at Louisiana State University, believes ORAC testing emphasizes the wrong thing, but recognizes that consumers are enamored with antioxidants.  “As scientists we need to understand that the true benefit of these materials go beyond antioxidant activity,” he said.  “But  ‘antioxidants’ is a catchy term.  It sells well.”

One major indication that the antioxidant craze could be waning is the decision that USDA made to remove the ORAC Database for Selected Foods from its website.  That’s kind of a big deal, I think.  This was a large chart that listed the ORAC values of lots of different foods which was maintained by USDA’s Nutrient Data Laboratory. But now it’s gone.  The explanation on the USDA site says the decision was “due to mounting evidence that the values indicating antioxidant capacity have no relevance to the effects of specific bioactive compounds, including polyphenols on human health.”

The explanation goes on to say:  “The data for antioxidant capacity of foods generated by in vitro (test-tube) methods cannot be extrapolated to in vivo (human) effects and the clinical trials to test benefits of dietary antioxidants have produced mixed results.  We know now that antioxidant molecules in food have a wide range of functions, many of which are unrelated to the ability to absorb free radicals.”

So what does this all mean?

The ORAC test measures what happens in a test tube, and this value may not necessarily reflect what happens in the body.  The natural compounds in fruits, vegetables and other foods may have antioxidant properties, but the true benefits may have nothing to do with its role as an antioxidant or its ability to fight free radicals. Instead, the natural compounds in foods go to work in other ways to protect our health.  It could be about fighting inflammation.  So putting all the focus on anti-oxidation doesn’t provide the true picture of the mechanism or the specific way these foods are beneficial.

The real workhorses in fruits and vegetables are the phytonutrients or phytochemicals, such as polyphenols and flavanoids.  And trend tracker Elizabeth Sloan believes we’ll soon see our lexicon change from antioxidants to phytochemicals.

So what should you do?

  • Continue to eat lots of plant-based foods that are rich in antioxidants, including fruits and vegetables.
  • Don’t get hung up on who has the highest ORAC score, all are good and more isn’t necessarily better.
  • Get your antioxidants naturally, instead of seeking out antioxidant-fortified foods or antioxidant supplements and super juices
  • Vary your colors to get a range of phytonutrients, the natural plant compounds that have anti-inflammatory and other benefits

image courtesy of HealthFreak2009 on flickr

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