Phytonutrients are the New Antioxidants

16236579616_eaff57bf09_zCan we just all get over antioxidants.  The real workhorses in fruits, vegetables, grains and other plant-based foods are the phytonutrients (“phyto” means plant).

I cringe a bit when I hear people talk about antioxidants these days, or when I see food and beverage manufacturers make antioxidant claims.  Here’s the deal, antioxidants are out.  Phytonutrients are in.  Learn why in my latest post for U.S. News & World Report’Eat + Run blog:

The public was once enamored by antioxidants. This technical-sounding term used to be plastered on food and beverage labels – from cereal, snack bars, chips and chocolate to juices, tea and even soft drinks.

You’ll still find some products touting the antioxidants inside, but the number of such claims has plummeted. Only 2 percent of new products in the U.S. boasted about antioxidants last year, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, which tracks food and beverage launches.

Much of the decline resulted from the Food and Drug Administration clamping down on companies making claims about antioxidants. Some manufacturers even faced lawsuits. The biggest nail in the antioxidant coffin was the decision by the Department of Agriculture to yank the ORAC Database for Selected Foods from its website in 2012. ORAC, which stands for oxygen radical absorbance capacity, is a test to estimate the antioxidant activity of foods.

Antioxidants are substances that inhibit oxidation – or the potential damaging effects of oxygen. They supposedly help protect the body from rogue molecules called free radicals that have been implicated in everything from heart disease to cancer.

The ORAC test was once widely used by food and supplement makers; ORAC scores were flashed on package labels, cited on charts comparing antioxidant levels, and featured in ads touting antioxidant super powers. Trouble is, the ORAC test looked only at what goes on in a test tube, which turns out to have little to do with what actually happens in the body.

On its website, the USDA explains: “There is no evidence that the beneficial effects of polyphenol-rich foods can be attributed to the antioxidant properties of these foods. 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.”

Around the same time the USDA removed the ORAC database from its website, research was underway that showed antioxidant supplements – including beta-carotene, vitamin E and selenium – did not offer protection against cancer and cardiovascular disease. In fact, some studies showed the supplements could even be harmful at high levels.

This doesn’t mean that antioxidants found naturally in foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, are not a good thing. They certainly are. But now scientists are discovering the reasons plant-derived foods are so beneficial go far beyond their antioxidant properties or ability to fight free radicals.

Rather than worrying about a food’s ORAC score, you’re better off knowing about the phytonutrients inside. Also called phytochemicals, these naturally-occurring compounds are the real workhorses in fruits, vegetables and other plant foods, protecting our health in many wondrous ways.

Phytonutrients help fight inflammation, influence blood vessel function, affect certain hormones and signaling systems that regulate cell growth, and even influence whether genes that protect health are turned on or temporarily silenced, says registered dietitian Karen Collins, a nutrition advisor to the American Institute for  Cancer Research.

So my wish is that people will stop referring to all the good stuff in fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods and beverages – even chocolate and wine – as antioxidants. It’s almost insulting to their multi-tasking abilities.

4859216391_d693dc8755_zIt’s time to learn a new lexicon. Now it’s all about polyphenols, flavonoids, flavanols, carotenoids, resveratrol, anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins and other phytonutrients. Maybe these words don’t roll off your tongue quite the same way as antioxidants easily do, but these are the terms that will soon be breaking through as we learn more about the disease-protecting attributes of phytonutrients.

From fruits and vegetables to grains, beans, nuts and seeds – if it’s a plant, it contains phytonutrients. Often these mighty phytonutrients provide the pigment in plants, so take a cue from the color. Orange-tinted beta carotene gives carrots, pumpkin and other winter squashes their distinctive hue. Bright red cherries are packed with anthocyanins and purple grapes are rich in resveratrol. Typically, the darker the color, the more phytonutrients inside.

However, don’t lose sight of the big picture. Focusing only on antioxidants or single phytonutrients is like “zeroing in on a section of an impressionist painting and seeing only the dots,” says Collins. “Step back and you see the big picture: that making nutrient-rich plant foods the focus of your meals protects your health through a whole range of pathways.”

Once again, this is an important reminder to emphasize whole foods, instead of individual nutrients. It’s about looking at your overall diet, not a single component. And, as always, your health is better protected by what you put on your plate than what you can buy in a pill.


Images: pomegranates by Kate Ter Haar on flickr, fresh cacao by Everjean on flickr

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