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Antioxidants

Recent buzz about “superfoods” has food producers placing that title on nearly every type of food. Part of what makes superfoods standout is their beneficial nutritional properties, including high levels of antioxidants. Cutting through the hype to identify true, antioxidant-rich superfoods can help you harness the power of these beneficial nutrients.

How Oxidative Damage Threatens Health

Cells rely on energy molecules called ATP to power their activities. The mitochondria, or “powerhouses” of the cell create energy by transporting protons along a series of proteins. Typically, oxygen reacts with these energy molecules by producing water as a harmless byproduct. In a small percentage of cases, however, oxygen reacts with energy molecules to create a O2-, a superoxide radical (Murphy, 2009). This is a highly unstable molecule that is considered a reactive oxygen species. Other reactive oxygen species (ROS) include hydroxyl radicals (OH) and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2).

Because ROS molecules are so unstable, they have the potential to damage cells. ROS strip electrons from from molecules with which they come into contact. These molecules, in turn, become unstable. Thus, production of ROS triggers a chain reaction of instability of a cell’s components. High levels of ROS can damage a cell’s proteins, cellular membrane, or even its genetic code. The combined effects of ROS on a cell is called oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress has been linked to numerous types of chronic health problems (Hybertson et al., 2011). For example, oxidative stress is thought to be a primary mechanism that contributes to the harmful effects of aging. ROS are also implicated in the origins and proliferation of tumor cells, meaning that high oxidative stress may contribute to risk for cancer. Furthermore, oxidative damage may lead to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease).

What Are Antioxidants?

Fortunately, other molecules can protect cells against the effects of oxidative damage. Antioxidants are a class of molecules that inhibit the oxidation of other molecules. By neutralizing ROS, antioxidants may slow or even reverse the effects of oxidative damage. This may provide an important mechanism by which antioxidants can reduce the risk of chronic disease.

The body naturally produces some antioxidants, including glutathione, coenzyme Q (CoQ), uric acid, bilirubin, melatonin, and alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) (Rizzo et al., 2010). Other antioxidants are found in dietary sources. Consuming more antioxidant-rich foods can boost your body’s antioxidant activity and may reduce risk of disease.

Types of Antioxidants that Benefit Health

There are at least several hundred -- and perhaps thousands -- of compounds that have antioxidant activity in the human body (Getz, 2008). Dozens of compounds with antioxidant properties are discovered each year. Some of the most well-characterized antioxidants include:

  • Resveratrol. Resveratrol is a phytochemical, or plant chemical, found in high concentrations in the skins of red grapes. Resveratrol contributes to cardiovascular health by promoting lipid metabolism, reducing “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, and preventing platelets from aggregating into clots (Fremont, 2000). Additionally, resveratrol may have anti-cancer properties and may reduce inflammation within cells.
  • Sulforaphane. Cruciferous vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbages are high in sulforaphane. Sulforaphane, a type of organosulfur compound, has potent antioxidant effects. It has been linked to lower risk of colon cancer and may also be effective in prevention of skin cancer (de Figueiredo et al., 2015).
  • Lycopene. Lycopene, found in tomatoes, has antioxidant properties that improve overall cardiovascular health, and certain tomato products that are cooked like sun-dried tomatoes and/or spaghetti sauce have even more bioavailability of this nutrient. Lycopene may reduce risk of gastrointestinal and prostate cancer (Clinton, 1998).
  • Carotenoids. Carotenoids are a class of pigmented molecules that are found in carrots and apricots. One type of carotenoid, lutein, promotes healthy eyes. People who consume high levels of lutein have a lower risk of macular degeneration and cataracts (Getz, 2000). Lutein and its related carotenoid called zeaxanthin may also improve cognitive abilities during aging.
  • Vitamin C. Vitamin C is one of the antioxidant vitamins. It is found in high amounts in bell peppers, broccoli, and citrus fruits. Vitamin C promotes adrenal gland functioning, immune system health, and repair of damaged tissues (Getz, 2000).
  • Vitamin E. Nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts are excellent sources of vitamin E. This vitamin is also found in wheat germ and sunflower oil. A diet high in vitamin E has been associated with lower risk of heart disease (Getz, 2000).

Making Dietary Choices to Maximize Antioxidant Consumption

Fruits and vegetables remain some of the best sources of antioxidants. For example, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are compounds with antioxidant properties. The best approach to ensure you get enough is to eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables each day.

Aim to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily to ensure you get enough antioxidant compounds in your diet. The color of the foods you eat can provide a clue as to which antioxidants you receive. For example, foods rich in carotenoids are often orange or yellow in color. Resveratrol-rich foods are deep red or purple. Thus, a good strategy is to eat fruits and vegetables across the color spectrum. Consider foods that are red-purple (grapes, berries), blue (plums, blueberries), light green (onions, asparagus, cabbage, Brussels sprouts), deep green (leafy green vegetables), yellow-orange (lemons, papayas, peaches), orange (pumpkins, carrots), and red (tomatoes, guava).

Eating fresh foods ensures that you get a maximum amount of dietary antioxidants. Dried fruits also provide an antioxidant boost. One of the other benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables, rather than supplements, is that they often contain complementary nutrients that increase bioavailability of antioxidants. For example, eating leafy greens contain plenty of iron that helps your intestines absorb more vitamin C. Keep in mind that snack foods such as nuts and seeds provide another healthy way to get antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin E.

Dosage and Safe Limits of Antioxidant Consumption

Scientists are actively studying the properties of antioxidants to determine appropriate dosages. High doses of supplemental antioxidants may pose certain risks, so it may be best to get antioxidants from food as part of your regular diet.

Recommended Recipes

These recipes include foods that are rich in the aforementioned antioxidants. Each recipe supplies different groupings of the nutrients to provide a wide array of benefits and are formulated with additional nutritional considerations in mind to act as part of a well-balanced diet.

Moringa Oatmeal

Moringa Oatmeal Recipe

This delectable dish is a brilliant way to start the day. Not only is oatmeal a great gluten-free grain to support a healthy diet, but the addition of pistachios and moringa powder pack an ample amount of antioxidants in every bite. Moringa is rich in both vitamin C and carotene (George Mateljan Foundation [GMF], n.d.).
Ingredients: Gluten-free rolled oats, almond milk, agave or maple syrup, vanilla extract, moringa powder, pistachios, dried mulberries, unsweetened shredded coconut, chia seeds.
Total Time: 10 minutes | Yield: 4 324-gram servings

Protein-Packed Detox Smoothie {vegan}

Protein-Packed Detox Smoothie Recipe {vegan}

A powerhouse of protein and other nutrients, this ingenious concoction contains countless contributions to your wellbeing, including the robust repositories of antioxidants spirulina, hemp, and chia seeds.
Ingredients: Almond milk, frozen banana, spirulina, hemp protein powder (optional), fresh mint, chia seeds, hemp hearts.
Total Time: 5 minutes | Yield: 2 399-gram servings

Chocolate Goji Berry Bars {gluten-free}

Chocolate Goji Berry Bars Recipe {gluten-free}

Goji berries contain an incredible supply of antioxidants in their own right, including carotenoids, vitamin C, and lycopene. But, goji berries aren’t even the only source of the free radical fighting agents- as the bars offer additional nutritional support from dark chocolate chips, pistachios, quinoa, and dates (GMF, n.d.).
Ingredients: Pitted dates, almond butter, quinoa puffs, goji berries, raw pistachios, coconut oil, dark chocolate chips.
Total Time: 20 minutes | Yield: 8 bars

Broccoli Quinoa Salad {gluten-free}

Broccoli Quinoa Salad Recipe {gluten-free}

This scrumptious salad contains an abundance of antioxidants with a combination of quinoa, pumpkin seeds, cherry tomatoes, and broccoli. Broccoli is loaded with sulforaphane, flavonoids, and carotenoids, as well as copious quantities of both vitamins E and C (GMF, n.d.).
Ingredients: Fresh broccoli, quinoa, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, raw pumpkin seeds, sea salt, black pepper, Dijon mustard (optional), vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, maple syrup.
Total Time: 1 hour | Yield: 8 217-gram servings

Kale Quinoa Salad

Kale Quinoa Salad Recipe

Savor this rich blend of supremely delicious fare and the profuse palate of antioxidant sources it supplies. Quinoa is rich in flavonoids and omega-3 fatty acids, while kale supplies vitamin C, carotenoids, and more than 45 flavonoids (GMF, n.d.).
Ingredients: Quinoa, fresh baby kale, purple cabbage, carrots, fresh dill, boiled eggs, rice wine, extra virgin olive oil, black pepper.
Total Time: 25 minutes | Yield: 8 210-gram servings

Quinoa Stuffed Peppers {gluten-free}

Quinoa Stuffed Peppers Recipe {gluten-free}

These superbly decadent delights offer a hearty helping of nutrients in one delicious package. In addition to quinoa and bell peppers, which offer more than 100% of your Daily Value (DV) for vitamin C in a single cup and copious carotenoids, the recipe includes spinach. Spinach is absolutely packed with carotenoids, flavonoids, selenium, zinc, and vitamins A, C and E.
Ingredients: Quinoa, green bell peppers, canned lentils, fresh spinach, feta cheese, frozen corn (thawed), salt, black pepper.
Total Time: 40 minutes | Yield: 6 259-gram servings (8 half-peppers)

Cranberry Pistachio Cookies {gluten-free}

Cranberry Pistachio Cookies Recipe {gluten-free}

Satisfy your sweet tooth while still serving up a superb supply of antioxidants with these mouthwatering munchies. These cookies contain both pistachios and dried cranberries to boost their benefits with flavonoids and carotenoids, including vitamin C.
Ingredients: Almond flour, brown rice flour, egg, sugar, coconut oil, dried cranberries, pistachios, baking soda, vanilla extract.
Total Time: 30 minutes | Yield: 12-14 cookies

Healthy Vegan Chocolate Truffle

Healthy Vegan Chocolate Truffle Recipe

Another decadent dessert that is surprisingly a supremely rich source of antioxidants, these tasty truffles utilize naturally beneficial foods, including: Medjool dates, chia seeds, and flaxseed meal. Flaxseed meal contains lignans, a fiber-like substance with powerful antioxidant properties, and is thought to be beneficial to cardiovascular health and to reduce the risk of developing cancer, type-2 diabetes, asthma, obesity and other chronic conditions (GMF, n.d.).
Ingredients: Jumbo Mejdool dates, almond flour, chia seeds, flaxseed meal, cacao powder, agave or maple syrup, almond milk, unsweetened shredded coconut.
Total Time: 15 minutes | Yield: 24 truffles

Healthy Snack Recommendations

Treat yourself to more than just a delicious snack with these select collations, each of which were chosen for their ample antioxidant content.

References

de Figueiredo, S.M., Binda, N.S., Nogueira-Machado, J.A., Vieira-Filho, S.A., & Caligiorne, R.B. (2015). The antioxidant properties of organosulfur compounds (sulforaphane). Recent Patents on Endocrine, Metabolic, and Immune Drug Discoveries, 9(1), 24-39.

Fremont, L. (2000). Biological effects of resveratrol. Life Sciences, 66(8), 663-673. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0024320599004105

George Mateljan Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2016, from http://www.whfoods.com/

Getz, L. (2008). Making sense of antioxidants. Today's Dietician, 10(9), 50. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/082508p50.shtml

Hybertson, B.M., Gao, B., Bose, S.K., & McCord, J.M. (2011). Oxidative stress in health and disease: the therapeutic potential of Nrf2 activation. Molecular Aspects of Medicine, 32(4-6), 234-246. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0098299711000501

Murphy, M.P. (2009). How mitochondria produce reactive oxygen species. Biochemistry Journal, 417, 1-3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2605959/

Rizzo, A.M., Berselli, P., Zava, S., Mortofano, G., Negroni, M., Corsetto, P., & Berra, B. (2010). Endogenous antioxidants and radical scavengers. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 698, 52-67. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21520703