By J. E. Hinners, MD MPH
Either that, or your international employer has delayed giving you your alien resident card which allows you to special order your favorite multivitamins and have them shipped to your door without any problems at customs (<–naturally. I only speak about hypothetical situations, of course…).
Meanwhile, you’ve acquired a new strain of a seasonal cold and want to beef up on your antioxidants *now* along with whatever other methods you may use to boost your immune system.
What is one to do?
Antioxidants can be found at your local grocery market.
And instead of worrying about collecting every item that could possibly contain antioxidants, why not be choosier about the items you buy and pick the ones with the greatest antioxidant potency?
Could mean more bang for your buck (er…maybe) and a more efficient shopping trip.
Antioxidants…what are they?
Antioxidants are substances that help defend the body against “free radicals,” chemicals found in food, air, the environment, and the body. If the body experiences imbalance in the free radical to antioxidant ratio and becomes overwhelmed with free radicals, oxidative stress occurs, and these chemicals can damage cells and can alter genetic material by attracting or “stealing” nearby electrons in the body. Infections, trauma, heat injury, toxins, and even excessive exercise can produce short-term oxidative stress.
Resulting health damage is broad and can be deadly. Atherosclerosis and cancer are deadly diseases classically aggravated by free radical activity.
Antioxidants help defend the body against free radicals by serving as electron donors to the electron-hungry free radicals. Examples of antioxidants include:
- vitamin C
- vitamin E
- and many other substances
Do antioxidants really boost the immune system and fight disease?
On the one hand, there has actually been some debate on whether or not antioxidants can prevent or heal certain diseases we would expect them to affect (such as cancer and atherosclerosis). One study, in fact, has even indicated that smokers who take beta-carotene may actually increase their chances of developing lung cancer. It’s clear that we do not yet definitively understand the full range of antioxidant dynamics in the body.
On the other hand, however, there have also been plenty of studies indicating possible health benefits of antioxidant consumption. A superficial glance at our current evidence seems to show some some promise when it comes to certain infectious diseases and neurodegenerative diseases. While this list is not meant to be comprehensive by any means, here are a few interesting studies that show some possible links between antioxidant consumption and disease protection or modification:
- Antioxidants and Alzheimer’s disease
- Vitamin C (& zinc) and Parkinson’s disease
- Vitamin C and common colds
- Antioxidants and cataracts
- Antioxidants and leprosy
Which foods contain the most antioxidants?
In a fascinating study by Carlsen et al. in a 2010 Nutrition Journal publication, antioxidant content of over 3100 beverages, foods, spices, herbs, and supplements were examined and compared.
Of all 24 food categories tested, “Spices and herbs,” “Herbal/traditional plant medicine,” and “Vitamin and dietary supplements” contained the highest antioxidant potency.
The categories with the next highest antioxidant content included “Berries and berry products,” “Fruit and fruit juices,” “Breakfast Cereals,” “Nuts and seeds,” “Chocolates and sweets,” “Beverages,” and “Vegetables and vegetable products.”
Plant-based foods were generally found to have higher antioxidant content than mixed and animal-based foods.
Which food had the highest antioxidant content overall?
CLOVES–in the spices and herbs category–took the lead with the most antioxidant content out of all foods and beverages tested!
Since herbs and spices contained the most antioxidants overall (apart from supplements), here is how the best ones stacked up (with antioxidant content in mmol/100g):
- Cloves, dried, whole and ground (277.3)
- Mint leaves, dried (116.4)
- Allspice, dried ground (100.4)
- Cinnamon, dried ground (77.0)
- Oregano, dried ground (63.2)
- Thyme, dried ground (56.3)
- Rosemary, dried ground (44.8)
- Saffron, dried ground (44.5)
- Sage, dried ground (44.3)
- Estragon, dried ground (43.8)
Side note about curcumin & turmeric…
I specifically was searching in this study to find curcumin which comes from the Indian yellow turmeric ground powder used in curry but did not see this spice in the list.
Curcumin has a wide range of incredible health benefits and serves as an anti-inflammatory compound in addition to being an antioxidant. There are plenty of great articles describing the evidence-based health benefits of curcumin, and I’m not going to flesh out that kind of article here, but wanted to mention curcumin in addition to the above herbs even though I did not see it in the antioxidant comparison article.
The closest measurement of antioxidant content in curcumin that I can find for the time being comes from one particular study which is interesting but does not really help me compare with the above list. The total antioxidant activity was measured as gallic acid and ascrobic acid (vitamin C) equivalents: roughly 448.4 mg GAE/g gallic acid equivalent-polyphenols (in case that gives you a clear idea as it does for me…er….?!).
Curcumin concentration in turmeric is only about 3.14% by weight. Of course, one could benefit by curcumin antioxidants by consuming ground turmeric powder used in cooking, but for greater antioxidant content, it would be more beneficial to directly consume extracted curcumin.
Whether you decide to directly consume extracted curcumin or consume it in smaller doses through turmeric powder, it may be advised to eat some black pepper at the same time, as pepper appears to maximize the body’s absorption of curcumin.
Second choice antioxidant-rich foods
Second to the category of “Spices and herbs,” the following food categories contained the next highest concentration of antioxidants, followed by the foods with highest antioxidant content in each category (in mmol/100g):
Berries and berry products: Amla/Indian gooseberry (261.5); Dog rose, wild, dried (78.1); Bilberries, dried (48.3); Blueberry jam (3.5); Strawberries (2.1)
Fruit and fruit juices: Dried apples (3.8); Dried plums (3.2); Dried apricots (3.1); Prunes (2.4).
Breakfast Cereals: Buckwheat flour (2.0); Millet (1.3); Barley flour (1.0)
Nuts and seeds: Walnuts, with pellicle (21.9); Pecans, with pellicle (8.5); Sunflower seeds (6.4); Chestnuts, with pellicle (4.7); Peanuts, roasted, with pellicle (2.0)
Chocolates and sweets: One type of dark chocolate (14.98); White chocolate (0.23).
Beverages: Espresso, prepared (14.2); Coffee, prepared filter and boiled (2.5); Red wine (2.5); Pomegranate juice (2.1); Green tea, prepared (1.2); Black tea, prepared (1.0); Prune juice (1.0)
Vegetables and vegetable products: Flour from okra (4.2); Artichokes (3.5); Curly kale (2.8); Red and green chili (2.4).
So there you have it! A guide for some naturally occurring antioxidants in foods.
If you’re anything like me, maybe you’ll start gnawing on cloves after you’ve added them to your tea (er…maybe with some dark chocolate to help swallow them down).