Which Antioxidants Actually Matter And What Foods Are Full Of Them?
We’ve been told for years now that antioxidants are good for us. We’ve even been led to believe that the more antioxidants we can pump into our bodies, the better they will run. So what’s true and what’s fluff? The Cusp nutrition expert Reece Carter explains.
Each year we’ve had a new wave of health foods presented to us as the antioxidant to end all antioxidants. That is, until the USDA stripped food products of their ORAC scores – which until then had been the most common measure of a food’s antioxidant status – because, to be honest, it was found to be an utterly meaningless measurement.
But at the same time, we know that antioxidant protection is one of our body’s main mechanisms for protecting cells from declining into disease and premature ageing. So where did it all go wrong, and where did the confusion come from? To understand that, you really need to understand what an antioxidant is, apart from a trendy word, that is.
What even is an antioxidant?
To recap, an antioxidant is basically a chemical compound – in this case, a naturally occurring one — that prevents oxidation reactions. These are something you probably learnt about in high school chemistry and then promptly forgot about.
But it turns out that these oxidation-reduction reactions are vitally important for cellular function. The oxidation of cells is a cause of poor health, and so antioxidant protection is like a shield that keeps them safe.
So protecting the cells from damage with huge hits of dietary antioxidants makes sense, right? Well, not entirely.
It turns out that it doesn’t quite work the way we had initially hoped, and the foods that performed as antioxidants in the lab were failing to do so in the human body. Our cells, as it turns out, are slightly more complex than petri dishes. That’s why the ORAC scores have been ditched: they just don’t account for what happens in the digestive tract, blood circulation, and at the cell membrane.
Our in-built protection
What we’ve overlooked in the argument though is that the body makes its own antioxidants. The most potent of them is called glutathione, and there’s a new body of research that focuses on these DIY antioxidants. The key – or the zipper, as it’s more accurately referred to – to the release of more glutathione is a protein called Nrf2.
“When it comes to antioxidant benefits and human health, more is not always more.”
You don’t need to remember all that. All you need to know is that this process has been nicknamed ‘the guardian of the lifespan’. When a healthy person is injured, gets sick, or comes in contact with harmful toxins, these processes are activated to protect our cells from damage.
But hold up. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, and you can’t live a life of pizza and chocolate in the hope that your body will do its antioxidant thing without any help from you. For this ‘guardian’ to function properly, it needs a few molecular wingmen floating about the cell with it. And those wingmen come from food. It’s just not necessarily the foods that score high on the ORAC chart.
The antioxidants that are actually relevant
Why it works: These little super-greens are the richest known source of something called sulforaphane, which in turn is the most potent natural antioxidant. Other brassica vegetables, like cauliflower, cabbage, and brussel sprouts, also contain sulforaphane, but at lower concentrations.
How to use it: You can grow your own sprouts and include them in cooking, or buy a supplement and blend through your smoothies and breakfast bowls.
Why it works: The humble spinach leaf is one of the richest plant sources of alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), which comes a close second for its antioxidant status.
How to use it: I would imagine (or hope) that most of us are eating spinach already. If it’s not your favourite veggie, you can disguise it in a smoothie, or opt for a straight-up ALA supplement.
Why it works: Yes, rejoice! Another reason to drink red wine. As in all of the good press around red wine, we can attribute its benefits to the compound resveratrol.
How to use it: Pour and enjoy, but stick to a single glass or else the damaging effects of alcohol will quickly outweigh the antioxidant benefits.
Why it works: This herbal medicine is a much more concentrated (but also much less fun) source of resveratrol.
How to use it: You’ll need to find this in a supplement.
That’s it. Those are really the only tried and true antioxidants for cell protection. Emerging research shows that turmeric, rosemary, ginkgo, and green tea may do the job too, but there haven’t been any human trials just yet.
Garlic, and cysteine-rich foods like eggs, whey protein, and lean meat provide the building blocks for glutathione, and so it’s worth munching on all of the above to ensure you’re giving your cells everything they need to strengthen their defences.
What this really tells us though, is that when it comes to antioxidant benefits and human health, more is not always more, and that the quality and type of antioxidant is infinitely more important than how many free radicals a food can scavenge in a test tube.
Reece Carter is a qualified Naturopath, herbal medicine expert and Australia’s very own ‘Garden Pharmacist’. From the planter box to the pantry and with a lifelong passion for all things green, this self-professed herb nerd has the answers.