Antioxidants serve as a powerful first line of defense against damage to your cells from aging, stress, and inflammation. Moreover, antioxidants appear to contain cancer-fighting properties and to support the immune system (among many other benefits).
Many, many foods, especially colorful vegetables, contain a range of valuable antioxidants. We’ve listed a few of the most potent and popular choices for each class of antioxidants. Here, we’ll go through the most important ones.
What Do Antioxidants Do?
Antioxidants are molecules that capture free radicals, or harmful oxygen atoms, that occur in response to normal body processes and environmental conditions. Even the simple act of digesting your food produces free radicals.
Over time, an overabundance of free radicals can slowly damage healthy cells, and then healthy tissues and eventually organs. You want to minimize the damage as much as possible, and antioxidants can help protect you.
Your body can make some antioxidants, and you get others from food.
Antioxidants can be broken into two general categories: antioxidant enzymes, and antioxidant nutrients, which include vitamins, minerals and the various -noids detailed below.
Antioxidant vitamins can be broken down into flavonoids and carotenoids.
Flavonoids (also called bioflavonoids) are polyphenol pigment compounds that are present in most flowering plants. They are commonly grouped under anthocyanidins, proanthocyanins, and phenolics. The coolest fact about flavonoid antioxidants: they offer a double-punch because they improve vitamin C’s antioxidant capabilities.
Foods that contain flavonoids include tea, citrus fruit, citrus fruit juices, berries, red wine, apples, and others.1
Carotenoids are fat-soluble vitamins. (Beta carotene is the most studied, but there are 600+ carotenoids we know about so far. Other popular ones include lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene.)
A lot of sources will say that one particular carotenoid, beta carotene, is the same thing as vitamin A, which isn’t exactly true. A percentage of beta carotene converts to vitamin A in the body, but not all of it. It’s best to get vitamin A from foods like liver, salmon, and others.
Foods high in carotenoids include apricots, beef liver, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, guava, mangoes, salmon, and others. Fruits and vegetables that are orange, red, and yellow tend to be sources of carotenoids2
The antioxidant enzymes are superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), and glutathione peroxidase (GPx).
SOD: Cruciferous vegetables are a must!
CAT: Get enough iron from beef, mushrooms and sturdy greens to ensure proper catalase production.
GPx: Selenium activates this enzyme, so get plenty of eggs, chicken, and fresh garlic in your diet. If you’d like to supplement glutathione, you can take n-acetylcysteine, or NAC, a building block of glutathione that gives your body what it needs to make more.
Super Food List: The Best Antioxidant Foods by ORAC Value
Foods’ antioxidant quality is measured as an ORAC value, which stands for Oxygen Radical Absobance Capacity. Here is a list of some of the best antioxidant foods with the the highest ORAC values according to the USDA:
- Prunes: 5770
- Raisins: 2830
- Blueberries: 2400
- Blackberries: 2036
- Kale: 1770
- Strawberries: 1540
- Spinach: 1260
- Raspberries: 1220
- Brussels sprouts: 980
- Plums: 949
- Alfalfa sprouts: 930
- Broccoli flowers: 890
- Beets: 840
- Oranges: 750
- Red grapes: 739
- Red bell pepper: 710
- Cherries: 670
- Kiwi fruit: 602
- Grapefruit, pink: 483
- Onion: 450
- Corn: 400*
- Eggplant: 390
*Corn is a grain, which may not work for people following a Primal lifestyle.
These lists of antioxidants and antioxidant foods are certainly not comprehensive, as there are thousands of phytonutrients currently being studied and more are discovered every year. Bottom line: the more you get, the better. A combination of prudent supplementation and plentiful, colorful vegetables is your smartest bet.