IFT Member Claudia Fajardo-Lira, PhD, Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at California State University-Northridge, explains the facts about antioxidants:
Q: What are antioxidants?
A: Antioxidants play an important role in overall health. They are natural compounds found in some foods that help neutralize free radicals in our bodies. Free radicals are substances that occur naturally in our bodies but attack the fats, protein and the DNA in our cells, which can cause different types of diseases and accelerate the aging process.
Q: What foods are the best sources for antioxidants?
A: The best antioxidant sources are fruits and vegetables, as well as products derived from plants. Some good choices include blueberries, raspberries, apples, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, eggplant, and legumes like red kidney beans or black beans. They're also found in green tea, black tea, red wine and dark chocolate. Usually, the presence of color indicates there is a specific antioxidant in that food.
The keyword here is variety. Try to get as many fruits and vegetables with different colors when you plan your meals and go to the grocery store. An array of color in your diet will give you the widest range of beneficial antioxidants.
Q: Does it matter whether the produce is cooked or consumed raw?
A: Depending on the particular food, cooking temperatures and methods can sometimes increase or decrease antioxidant levels. The important thing is that you eat antioxidant-rich foods, so go with your personal preference for preparation—as long as it's not deep frying!
Q: Are added antioxidants as effective as those that occur naturally?
A: Yes, vitamins such as C, A and E can be added to foods - and they often are, such as in orange juice. One of the things those additives do is act as antioxidants in the body. There is no significant physiological difference between the added antioxidants and the ones occurring naturally in the food source. However, there's also no evidence that taking antioxidant dietary supplements work as well as the antioxidants found in food products. It's important not to overdo it on supplements because there can be too much of a good thing. With food products, it would be extremely difficult to consume an excessive amount of antioxidants.
Q: Is there a specific amount of antioxidants consumers should aim for each day?
A: There is not a set recommended daily allowance (RDA) for antioxidants, but the new MyPlate tool based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that you make half your plate fruits and vegetables. If you aim to do that at most meals, you can be sure to get the antioxidants you need.
Source: Institute of Food Technology (IFT)