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Why you can’t choose foods based on antioxidants alone

Bright colors = antioxidant-rich. But that's not enough.

Last week, we talked to Dana James about ANDI, a popular nutrition rating system used at Whole Foods.

Now, the triple board certified nutritionist helps us get a grip on ORAC, another unit of measurement used to evaluate the quality of antioxidants in food—and justify a few glasses of wine.

Here’s what you need to know about ORAC.

What it stands for: Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity

What it is: The ORAC system was developed by scientists at the National Institutes of Health to measure a food’s antioxidant capacity. Foods with higher scores are said to have higher free-radical-fighting abilities. (It’s why red wine is touted as healthy.) Skin-care companies also use ORAC scores to sell anti-aging products that contain antioxidant ingredients like resveratrol.

Pros: “Antioxidants are crucial for healthy living,” says James. Naturally, choosing foods rich in them is a good thing. Except, of course, it’s not that simple. Which brings us to…

Cons: “Using ORAC to assess the full antioxidant capacity of a food is like asking for a full body massage and the therapist only massaging the left side of the body,” says James. Why?

ORAC scores only measure water-soluble (not fat-soluble) antioxidant activity, so important nutrients like vitamin D, vitamin E, and carotenoids are left out, she explains.

Kale, for instance, has a high concentration of fat-soluble antioxidants that are ignored, so an ORAC devotee may choose grape juice (which scores higher) over the leafy powerhouse vegetable. “I don’t think any health conscious person would argue that grape juice is superior to kale,” says James.
Food ORAC scores - USDA

And antioxidants are only one piece of the complex puzzle that makes up a whole food. Without the synergy created by fiber, minerals, and other components, they may not be as powerful at protecting against aging and disease. ORAC misses that by awarding foods like freeze-dried acai powder mega-high scores.

Finally, ORAC scores are measured in a test tube, and how the antioxidants actually behave in your body is another, less-understood story.

The takeaway: The doubts about the usefulness of ORAC scores are so great that the USDA recently removed its ORAC value database from its website “due to mounting evidence that the values indicating antioxidant capacity have no relevance to the effects of specific bioactive compounds, including polyphenols on human health.”

The USDA concluded that “The data for antioxidant capacity of foods generated by in vitro (test-tube) methods cannot be extrapolated to in vivo (human) effects and the clinical trials to test benefits of dietary antioxidants have produced mixed results.”

So, just like with the ANDI rating system, James says to forget the numbers, and stick to basics. “If you want to eat for your optimal level of wellness, eat vegetables, a small amount of fruit, oily fish and complex carbohydrates based on your activity level.” —Lisa Elaine Held