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Antioxidants 101

Toni-Ann DiSantis

Antioxidants 101

Antioxidants are compounds that neutralize the cellular-damaging effects of free radicals. Here's how it works: Free radicals are produced naturally in your body, but when you exercise hard, your body pumps out more free radicals. Environmental factors such as pollution, the sun, cigarette smoke, and herbicides can also spawn free radicals. The danger is that free-radical damage may lead to cancer. Antioxidants interact with and stabilize free radicals and may prevent some of the damage that free radicals otherwise might cause. As an active person, more antioxidants may help you slow the aging process, ward off cancer and stress, and promote good health.

Antioxidant-Rich Foods

Antioxidants are abundant in fruits and vegetables, as well as in other foods, including nuts, grains, and some meats, poultry and fish. The list below describes food sources of common antioxidants.

Vitamin A
Vitamin A is found in three main forms: vitamin A1, vitamin A2 and vitamin A3. Foods rich in vitamin A include liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk, egg yolks and mozzarella cheese.

Found in many foods that are orange in color, including sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, squash, apricots, pumpkin and mangos. Legumes, including collard greens, spinach, and kale, are also rich in beta-carotene.

Best known for its association with healthy eyes, lutein is abundant in green, leafy vegetables such as collard greens, spinach and kale.

A potent antioxidant found in tomatoes, watermelon, guava, papaya, apricots, pink grapefruit, blood oranges and other foods. Estimates suggest that 85 percent of American dietary intake of lycopene comes from tomatoes and tomato products.

Vitamin C
Also called ascorbic acid, vitamin C can be found in high abundance in many fruits (citrus), different vegetables (green peppers), and is also found in cereals, beef, poultry and fish.

Selenium is actually a mineral, not an antioxidant nutrient, but it is a component of antioxidant enzymes. Plant foods such as rice and wheat are the major dietary sources of selenium in most countries. However, in the United States, animals that eat grains or plants grown in selenium-rich soil have higher levels of selenium in their muscle. In the United States, meats and bread are common sources of dietary selenium. Brazil nuts also contain large quantities of selenium.

Vitamin E
Also known as alpha-tocopherol, vitamin E is found in almonds; in many oils including wheat germ, safflower, corn and soybean oils; and is also found in mangos, nuts, broccoli and other foods.

Antioxidant-Rich Beverages

Where do Americans typically get their antioxidants? Coffee is number one on the list. Other popular sources include black tea, bananas, dried beans, corn, red wine, beer, apples, tomatoes and sweet potatoes.

Another interesting source of antioxidants is cocoa. Many recent studies emphasize the health benefits of red wine and tea, known to be high in antioxidants, but researchers at Cornell University have shown that hot chocolate contains more antioxidants per cup than a similar serving of red wine or tea. Their study, done in 2003, compared the total antioxidant content of these three popular beverages.

To gain a better understanding of how these beverages compare in terms of antioxidants, the researchers tested all three beverages using similar serving sizes and conditions. The beverages tested included a cup of hot water containing 2 tablespoons of pure cocoa powder, close to the amount of cocoa in a normal-size packet of instant hot chocolate, a cup of water containing one bag of green tea, a cup of black tea, and 5 ounces of red wine (California merlot).

Using special analytical techniques to evaluate the total antioxidant content in each beverage, the researchers showed the antioxidant concentration in cocoa was the highest among those tested. The hot chocolate was almost two times stronger in antioxidants than red wine, two to three times stronger than green tea, and four to five times stronger than that of black tea.

Antioxidant-rich cocoa is also found in many different products including desserts, sauces, liqueurs, and candy bars, which differ widely in their cocoa content, and many companies are advertising their chocolate to contain antioxidants while emphasizing the natural qualities of the chocolate. Keep in mind, a normal 40-gram bar of chocolate contains about 8 grams of saturated fat, compared to only 0.3 grams in an average cup of hot cocoa.

Bottom line: Color your plate with green, orange, red, yellow and brown. The more color from fruits and veggies you have, the more likely you are going for natural sources of antioxidants—and throw in a cup of hot chocolate once in a while.