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What Are Antioxidants?

by Marianne Navada

Antioxidants are compounds that reduce the negative effects of free radicals.

Free radicals are atoms or molecules that can damage our cells through a process called oxidation. When free radicals oxidize, they steal electrons from our cells. Oxidation can cause cells to lose their ability to function normally, which can damage a cell or even cause it to die. 

Antioxidants stabilize free radicals by donating an electron to the free radical before it oxidizes, hence the name antioxidant.

How Does the Body Produce Free Radicals?

Free radicals form either through natural or environmental factors. 

Free radicals can derive from “normal metabolic process” in the body (natural process). As we get older, free radicals progressively affect our body negatively. Genetics and our environment dictate how they change over time. 

Damages from free radicals can result in deadly degenerative diseases such as cancer, asthma, diabetes and more.

Oxidative stress occurs when there is a chronic amount of free radicals, and a plant-based diet is believed to protect against chronic oxidative stress-related diseases. 

Harvard School of Public Health

External factors that affect the production of free radicals include diets rich in fats and oils, alcohol, smoking, air pollutants, and pesticides. 

We can measure free radicals using an EPR or electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy.

Food rich in antioxidants, lifestyle, and our surrounding environment can mitigate the negative effects of free radicals. 

Antioxidants stabilize free radicals by donating an electron to the free radical before it oxidizes, hence the name antioxidant.

Foods Rich in Antioxidants

Examples: prunes, blueberries, beet, strawberries, pecans, kale, broccoli, potatoes, beans, oats…

One way to measure a food’s antioxidant capacity is through the ORAC value, which stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. Here’s how the lab test works: 

They place a food in a test tube along with two types of molecules. Those that are “vulnerable to oxidation” and those that “generate free radical activity”.  After some time, they measure the level of oxidation caused by the free radical and how well the food protected the vulnerable molecules. Researchers measure the “total oxidation capacity” of the food.

According to the USDA, prunes have some of the highest ORAC value at 5770. Kale is at 1770. 

There exists other measurement methods and values aside from ORAC. A drawback of ORAC values, they fail to explain how much of the antioxidant capacity of the food our bodies actually consume. 

Cooking Antioxidant-Rich Foods

Depending on the vegetable, different cooking methods can either lower, preserve, or increase antioxidant levels.

Results showed that, depending on the vegetable, cooking on a flat metal surface with no oil (griddling) and microwave cooking maintained the highest antioxidant levels.

Green beans, beets, and garlic were found to keep their antioxidant levels after most cooking treatments.

Institute of Food Technologists | Science Daily

Natural vs. Manufactured Antioxidants

Antioxidants come in natural form (found in food), or can be manufactured. There is a debate on whether high doses of supplemental antioxidants may be harmful, but not natural antioxidants.

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