- A variety of veggies, fruits and nuts battled it out
this month for the top spot on a new list of the 20 most antioxidant-rich
foods, ranked by nutrition scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- In the end, small red beans won the day, narrowly beating
out wild blueberries as the food with the highest concentration of disease-fighting
compounds per serving. Antioxidants fight damage to cells from rogue molecules
called "free radicals."
- Experts believe this assault on cells may fuel killer
diseases such as heart disease and cancer, and even aging itself. The new
Top 20 list, published in the June issue of the Journal of Agricultural
and Food Chemistry, "is a relative ranking of the capacity of foods
to interfere with or prevent oxidative processes and to scavenge free radicals,"
explained list co-creator Ronald L. Prior, a USDA nutritionist and research
chemist based in Little Rock, Ark.
- Prior and his colleagues used the most advanced technologies
available to tabulate antioxidant levels in more than 100 different types
of fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts and spices.
- Their TOP 20
- 1) Small red beans (dried).
- 2) Wild blueberries.
- 3) Red Kidney beans.
- 4) Pinto beans.
- 5) Blueberries (cultivated).
- 6) Cranberries.
- 7) Artichokes (cooked).
- 8) Blackberries.
- 9) Prunes.
- 10) Raspberries.
- 11) Strawberries.
- 12) Red Delicious apples.
- 13) Granny Smith apples.
- 14) Pecans.
- 15) Sweet cherries.
- 16) Black plums.
- 17) Russet potatoes (cooked).
- 18) Black beans (dried).
- 19) Plums.
- 20) Gala apples.
- There's "still a lot we haven't learned" about
why some foods are richer in antioxidants than others, Prior said. Even
though the small red bean came out on top, "we don't have a lot of
information on beans," he added.
- Berries are better understood. "The components that
contribute a lot of the antioxidant activity are what are called anthocyanins,
the compounds that give many berries their dark blue color," he said.
- FOOD COLOR MAKES A DIFFERENCE In fact, color may be key
to spotting foods that fight free radicals, said Roberta Anding, an American
Dietetic Association spokeswoman and a nutritionist at Texas Children's
Hospital in Houston.
- "If you're looking for the best places to get antioxidants,
I will usually tell folks to look at the colors of the rainbow," she
added. For example, "you'll find lutein with some of the yellow pigments
found in corn; orange can be the pigments from the carotenoid family that
are found in cantaloupe, butternut squash and mango; red could come from
things like lycopene, found in tomatoes and watermelon. And then the darker
colors - the purples, blues, in berries," she said.
- But Prior cautioned that just because a food has proven
to be antioxidant-rich in the USDA's lab, that doesn't mean all those nutrients
will be successfully absorbed by the human digestive tract. "As we
learn more and more, we're finding that, depending on the chemical makeup
of antioxidants in different foods, some of them aren't apparently absorbed
as well, or else they are metabolized in a form where they are no longer
antioxidants," he said.
- Whether a food is eaten fresh, frozen, processed or cooked
can also affect its antioxidant potency for good or ill, he said. Blueberries
are best when eaten fresh rather than cooked in a pie, for example. On
the other hand, research has shown that gentle cooking raises the antioxidant
power of tomatoes, he noted. Although experts are working hard on the project,
ongoing efforts to come up with daily dietary guidelines for antioxidant
consumption will be "a long process," Prior said.
- "How antioxidants behave, how they act within the
body, the dose-response - we just don't know enough about it," he
said. For her part, Anding said people shouldn't get too hung up on gorging
on one particular food, but "cast your net widely," eating generous
daily servings of a variety of fruits, vegetables and other wholesome foods.
- Looking over the USDA's list, Anding suggested creating
what she called an antioxidant "power salad." First, she said,
"put together a salad with a variety of mixed greens. Then I'd throw
in some dried cranberries or blueberries from the health food store, toss
in a few nuts, with a low-fat salad. Again, choosing from the colors of