In recent years there has been lots of information in various news media about antioxidants and their importance in maintaining health. At the risk of making the subject appear simple this article will discuss why we need antioxidants, what are the best sources. And some false ideas about their values.
This then brings up the subject of free radicals. These are chemicals that are produced primarily by the running of the body's machinery -- what is called metabolism. However they can also be produced by pollutants such as tobacco smoke.
We could use the analogy of cops and robbers -- antioxidants being the cops and the free radicals being the robbers.
The free radicals can cause significant damage to the body and the antioxidants help to neutralize the activity of the free radicals. Consequently the antioxidants are very important in maintaining health.
In the July 2006 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition ( a highly respected medical journal) is a report of a study in which samples of 1,113 foods commonly used in the U.S. were analyzed to determine the antioxidant content. The whole article covers 40 pages.
To help you understand the levels of the antioxidants in these foods I will use two different measures. Folks who are not familiar with the measures used will at least be able to get an idea of what foods have the highest levels and what have the lowest levels of antioxidants.
In a list that showed the 50 foods with the highest antioxidant value ground cloves had by far the highest level with 125.549 mmol per 100 grams. At the bottom of that list was grape juice with 1.011 mmol per 100 grams. So ground cloves had about 125 times as much antioxidants as grape juice.
However since people usually only use small amounts of spices or condiments in order to clarify the issue they also gave a list of 50 commonly used foods using serving size instead of the 100 gram size.
The serving size varied somewhat depending on the food being served. Blackberries were at the top of that list with 5.746 mmol per serving and tamarind nectar, a Latino beverage, was at the bottom with 0.761 mmol per serving.
The five products with the highest mmol per serving were blackberries followed by Welch's grape juice, at 4.089, Ocean Mist artichokes at 3.494, walnuts at 3.721 and strawberries at 3.584.
The article stated clearly that in general plants and plant products were much higher in antioxidants than were those from animals. It went on to say that nearly all of the 300 products containing the highest levels were from plants and the 300 with the lowest levels were from animals.
Now for some words of caution. Vitamins E, C and beta-carotene, from which vitamin A is derived, are antioxidants.
When my daughter was in medical school from 1978-1982 some of the professors were promoting the use of them as supplements with the thought that the supplements could help prevent disease.
Wrong. Unfortunately, recent research has shown that when used in that fashion they could actually do more harm than good. It is far better to eat the foods which contain these vitamins and some of the minerals that are also antioxidants in adequate amounts so that they can work together to maintain the highest level of health.
Dr. Don Casebolt of College Place is a retired physician who is passionate about preventive medicine. He spent 4 years as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy, the last 2 1/2 years as a flight surgeon. He also worked on the Navajo Reservation for 22 years.