Antioxidants are all the rage – indeed, more and more of us are actively choosing to consume foods and supplements that are high in these unique compounds, which have been progressively linked to an increased immunity, improved memory, a reduction in the visible signs of aging and a decreased risk of chronic disease, such as heart disease and cancer. But what exactly are antioxidants and how do they work? And more importantly, which antioxidant rich superfoods should you consider adding to your daily diet for improved health and wellbeing? Let’s take a closer look!
What are antioxidants?
Simply put, antioxidants are chemical compounds that combat ‘oxidation’ – a natural process that occurs in both living and dead organisms (including the human body) and was first discovered in 1954 by American gerontologist, Denham Harman, who was researching the causes of aging. Oxidation is clearly visible when you cut an apple in half. After an hour or so, the apple will turn brown. Similarly, a bike left outside for many years will begin to rust. This is because the apple and the bike have been exposed to oxygen, which triggers the formation of ‘free radicals’.
What are free radicals?
Without getting too scientific, free radicals are atoms (or groups of atoms) that contain an odd number of electrons and can thus start a chain of damaging chemical reactions. In the human body they may react with cellular components, such as DNA, and can lead to the damage or even the death of that particular cell. Unfortunately free radicals are not solely generated by your body; they’re also found in the food that you eat (in the form of pesticides, fertilisers and artificial additives etc.) and in the air that you breathe (e.g. environmental pollutants, such as carbon monoxide or UV radiation from the sun). A build up of free radicals leads to a state known as ‘oxidative stress’, which manifests in both premature aging and disease. Oxidative stress is more common in those who are obese, smoke, drink excessive amounts of alcohol, take medication, sunbathe, enjoy intensive exercise, consume a diet rich in sugary or processed foods, or are regularly exposed to chemicals or radiation.
How do antioxidants benefit your health?
Essentially antioxidants inhibit the oxidation of molecules and thus prevent the damage caused by free radicals. Some antioxidants can even reverse or repair any damage already caused.
Since coming to public attention in the 1990s, antioxidants have been associated with a number of health benefits, such as a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, arthritis, macular degeneration and even Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study published in the Daily Telegraph suggests that enjoying an antioxidant-rich diet will demonstrably cut your risk of heart attack for example. Indeed, the study revealed that those women who benefited from the highest levels of antioxidants in their diets, were 20% less likely to suffer a heart attack over 10 years compared with those who ate the lowest levels.
How can you increase your antioxidant intake?
Whilst your body manufactures its own antioxidant enzymes, their production reduces as you age. Fortunately, you can also obtain additional antioxidants from your food.
Antioxidants are extremely diverse – there are both fat-soluble and water-soluble antioxidants, as well as small molecule and large molecule antioxidants. They can be further broken down into the following key types:
- Antioxidant vitamins – these include vitamins A, C, E, folic acid and beta-carotene.
- Antioxidant enzymes – these include superoxide dismutase (SOD), glutathione peroxidase, glutathione reductase, and catalases, as well as co-factors, such as iron, copper, selenium, magnesium, and zinc.
- Antioxidant phytochemicals – natural antioxidants used by plants to protect themselves against free radicals. Includes carotenoids, flavonoids (the largest class of antioxidants), allyl sulphides and polyphenols (also known as phenols).
Their effective operation is dependant on a number of factors, so it’s important that you try to obtain as large a variety of antioxidants from as many different food sources as possible.
Top 5 antioxidant rich superfoods
As the excessive consumption of concentrated supplements, such as vitamin E, can be detrimental to your health, respected health organisations, including the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, recommend obtaining antioxidants from natural food sources instead.
Certain superfoods in particular, are renowned for their high levels of antioxidants – it’s better to eat small, regular amounts of these antioxidant-rich superfoods than to rely on a larger quantity of just one food source.
Below are 5 superfoods that are extremely rich in antioxidants.
1) Organic cacao beans
Organic cacao beans come from the fruit of the tropical cacao tree that’s native to Central and South America. They’re rich in valuable nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fibre and essential fatty acids, and contain a generous amount of antioxidants to boot. According to a study published in the “Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry” published in 2003, they’re especially high in anthocyanin (a type of flavonoid) and epicatechins, giving them a greater antioxidant capability even than black tea, green tea or red wine.
The flavonoid antioxidants in organic cacao beans are thought to have significant benefits for your cardiovascular system. Dr. Silvina Lotito from the Linus Pauling Institute believes that the proanthocyanidin compounds found in cacao can help to decrease oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or ‘bad cholesterol’), thus preventing the formation of plaque in your arteries, improving your circulation and lowering your risk of heart disease. The Linus Pauling Institute additionally claims that the flavonoid antioxidants in cacao might inhibit the development of cancer, although more extensive studies on larger populations are needed to confirm this.
Kale is a nutrient dense super green and a member of the brassica family – it’s extremely high in fibre, vitamins and minerals, and is an excellent source of antioxidants, including beta-carotene (which some studies suggest may lower your risk of developing cancer or heart disease), lutein and zeaxanthin. It also contains over 45 different flavonoids, such as kaempferol and quercetin, which can help to combat chronic inflammation and oxidative stress – two leading causes of cancer.
3) Matcha green tea
Organic matcha green tea powder is made from the leaves of shade grown Camellia sinensis – a unique type of green tea that’s central to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. It’s brimming with valuable nutrients, including dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and chlorophyll, but it’s matcha green tea’s impressive antioxidant content that really sets it apart. Researchers at Tufts University have revealed that matcha green tea boasts an incredible twenty times more antioxidants than either pomegranates or blueberries, and has an ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) rating of 1300 units per gram. As a comparison, pomegranates contain just 105 units per gram and blueberries, only 91 units per gram.
Moreover matcha green tea powder contains a potent class of antioxidant known as catchins, and in particular, epigallocatechin gallate or ECG, which is renowned for its unique cancer fighting properties and an ability to counteract the effects of free radicals from pollution, UV rays, radiation, and chemicals.
4) Acai berries
Acai berries are small, purple fruits that grow on the acai palm in the Amazonian rainforests of Central and South America. They’re usually freeze-dried for purchase in a concentrated powder form that’s high in fibre, vitamins, calcium, amino acids and essential fatty acids. Organic acai berry powder also benefits from an unusually high concentration of antioxidants and, it too, has a higher ORAC rating than blueberries, pomegranates and red grapes.
Organic acai berry powder is notably rich in anthocyanins, a plant based antioxidant that’s linked to reduced cholesterol levels, and plant sterols, which are believed to help prevent the formation of blood clots and relax your blood vessels. Enjoying a daily serving of organic acai berry powder can therefore help to improve your blood circulation and ultimately reduce your risk of heart disease.
5) Coconut oil
Deliciously aromatic coconut oil comes from the coconut, which grows on the coconut palm. It’s exceptionally rich in vegetable saturated fatty acids that can help to prevent heart disease, combat infection, boost your body’s immunity, promote weight loss, and maintain healthy skin. Coconut oil is additionally high in antioxidant vitamin E, which not only protects against heart disease; it also helps to delay the deterioration typically associated with aging, such as cataracts and wrinkles. A study published in the journal “Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine” found that the polyphenol compounds in coconut oil may even reduce the loss of bone density that occurs with osteoporosis. What’s more, coconut oil doesn’t oxidise while heating, making it a perfect alternative to your regular cooking oil!