Antioxidants In Food

pomegranates are high in antioxidants

Dietary antioxidants are mainly derived from plants, where they protect leaves, flowers and fruit from the ravages of strong sunlight, and from attack by viruses, fungi and bacteria. In plants, antioxidants help to discourage insect attacks, and some have a hot, peppery taste that discourages animals from eating them. Even the antioxidants obtained from marine sources, such as krill, are ultimately derived from algae and plankton at the bottom of the food chain.

When we consume foods high in antioxidants, we benefit from their protective effects, too. Antioxidants have anti-ageing effects by helping to neutralise damaging oxidation reactions that are associated with hardening and furring up of the arteries, raised cholesterol levels, rising blood pressure with age, and many if not most cancers.

While antioxidant supplements are available, it’s best to obtain them wherever possible by eating foods high in antioxidants.

Antioxidants and free radicals

Antioxidants neutralise chemicals known as free radicals. A free radical is a molecular fragment that carries an electrical charge in the form of a spare electron. This charge makes the free radical highly unstable, so it naturally loses this charge by passing on the spare electron during collisions with other molecules and cell structures. This process, known chemically as an oxidation reaction, automatically generates another unstable free radical from the molecule that absorbs the spare electron.

Rather like a game of pass-the-parcel, this new free radical also passes on the charge, and oxidation triggers a cascading chain reaction in which electrons are rapidly passed from one molecule to another with damaging results.

Body proteins, fats, cell membranes and genetic material (DNA) are constantly under attack from free radicals, with each cell undergoing an estimated 10,000 free radical oxidations per day. When genetic material is damaged, mutations can occur and this is thought to be the main mechanism that triggers cancer.

Lack of dietary antioxidants is associated with an increased risk of developing:

  • antioxidants free radicalshardening and furring up of the arteries
  • high blood pressure
  • coronary heart disease
  • stroke
  • deteriorating vision due to cataracts and macular degeneration
  • premature ageing of the skin
  • chronic inflammatory diseases such as arthritis
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • poor sperm count and quality
  • congenital birth defects.

What causes free radicals?

Free radicals are continuously produced in the body as a result of:

  • muscle contraction during exercise
  • normal and abnormal metabolic reactions (including those occurring in diabetes)
  • smoking cigarettes
  • drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
  • exposure to excessive ultraviolet sunlight, especially if sunburned
  • exposure to environmental pollutants
  • exposure to x-rays
  • taking some drugs – especially antibiotics or paracetamol.

The generation of a certain number of free radicals is unavoidable, and even desirable, as they are involved in important immune reactions, including fighting infections. Antioxidant protection against excessive free radical attack does appear to provide health benefits, however. This is especially true for people with diabetes, whose cells are exposed to significantly increased levels of oxidative stress due to oxidation reactions involving glucose, and for smokers.

Foods high in antioxidants

Foods high in antioxidants are our main defence against excessive free radical attack. Antioxidants work by quickly absorbing the spare electrons that create free radicals, and neutralising them – ideally before they can damage our cells.

Several vitamins and minerals act as antioxidants, of which the most important are vitamin A and the closely related carotenoids, vitamin C, vitamin E and the mineral, selenium. The greatest antioxidant activity comes from polyphenols, however, the chemicals that contribute to the vibrant colour, scent and taste of fruit – especially berries – and vegetables.

Herbs and spices are another rich source of antioxidants, and are so powerful in flavour that they’re usually only consumed in tiny quantities. Among the kitchen herbs, the highest levels of antioxidants are found in oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley and basil. The highest levels in spices are found in ginger, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, allspice and mustard.

Tea (oolong, white, green, black tea and rooibos), dark chocolate and cacao/cocoa (which should count as one of our five a day), and from nuts and seeds.

Wine is another rich source of antioxidant polyphenols, especially resveratrol, which are derived from the grape skins and pips. White wine contains a different blend of antioxidant polyphenols to red wine.

Eating fruit and veg raw (where appropriate) is the best way to absorb dietary nutrients, including antioxidants, as heat can destroy some antioxidants such as vitamin C.

The health benefits of foods high in antioxidants

Dietary antioxidants protect circulating cholesterol from oxidation, so it is not absorbed by scavenger cells (macrophages). This reduces the extent to which overladen scavenger cells become trapped when trying to leave the circulation, which contributes to hardening and furring up of the arteries.

Some antioxidants, especially polyphenols, also improve the elasticity of artery walls, and have an effect on nitric oxide, a chemical released in blood vessel linings to promote blood vessel dilation. This helps to protect against high blood pressure.

Other antioxidants interact with cell signalling systems and have regulating effects on cell growth and functions.

In people with diabetes, a good intake of antioxidants helps to prevent oxidation damage associated with raised levels of glucose, and provides some protection against diabetes complications.

The ORAC score for foods high in antioxidants    

The antioxidant potential of fruit and vegetables is assessed by measuring their ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) score.

Researchers have estimated that the average person following a Western diet obtains around 5700 ORAC units per day. Ideally, you need at least 7000 ORAC units for health and the optimum level to aim for is 20,000 ORAC units per day, or more.

The following table shows which fruit and vegetables have the highest ORAC score to help maximum your antioxidant intake. Interestingly, dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids) which is obtained from the cocoa bean, contains the highest level of antioxidants found in any common food item.

Fruit, Nuts, Cacao

ORAC score* per 100g

Average serving size (grams)

ORAC score per average serving

Dark chocolate 103,971 40g 41,588
Capers (dry weight) 65,598 10g 6,559
Pecan nuts 17,940 28g 5,095
Walnuts 13,541 28g 3,846
Pomegranate 10,500 100g 10,500
Hazelnuts 9,645 28g 2,739
Cranberries 9,456 95g 8,983
Lowbush blueberries 9,260 145g 13,427
Prunes 8,578 85g 7,291
Pistachios 7,983 28g 2,267
Plums (black) 7,339 66g 4,844
Plums (red) 6,239 66g 4,118
Blackberries 5,348 144g 7,701
Raspberries 4,925 123g 6,058
Almonds 4,454 28g 1,265
Red Delicious apple 4,275 138g 5,900
Dates 3,895 89g 3,467
Strawberries 3,577 166g 5,938
Figs 3,383 75g 2,537
Cherries 3,361 145g 4,873
Peanuts 3,166 28g 899
Raisins 3,037 82g 2,490
Gala apple 2,828 138g 3,903
Golden Delicious apple 2,670 138g 3,685
Avocado 1,933 173g 3,344
Pears (green varieties) 1,911 166g 3,172
Peaches 1,863 98g 1,826
Oranges (navel) 1,814 140g 2,540
Pears (Red Anjou) 1,773 166g 2,943
Macadamia nuts 1,695 28g 481
Tangerines 1,620 84g 1,361
Red grapefruit 1,548 123g 1,904
Lemon juice 1263 30g 379
Red grapes 1,260 160g 2,016
Green grapes 1,118 160g 1,789
Mango 1,002 165g 1,653
Kiwi 918 76g 698
Banana 879 118g 1,037
Lime juice 856 30g 194
Nectarine 749 136g 1,019
Pineapple 793 155g 1,229
Watermelon 142 152g 216


ORAC score per 100g

Average serving size (grams)

ORAC score per average serving

Red kidney beans 14,413 92g 13,259
Pinto beans 12,359 96g 11,864
Red lentils 9,766 75g 7,325
Black beans 8,040 52g 4,181
Globe artichoke 6552 100g 6552
Blackeye peas 4,343 52g 2,258
Green peas 4039 50g 2,015
Chickpeas (garbanzo) 4,030 75g 3,022
Red cabbage (cooked) 3,146 75g 2,359
Beetroot 2,774 68g 1,886
Spinach 2640 40g 1056
Aubergine (eggplant) 2,533 41g 1,039
Navy beans 2,474 104g 2,573
Red leaf lettuce 1,785 68g 1,213
Russet potatoes (cooked) 1,555 299g 4,649
Green cabbage 1,359 35g 476
Red potatoes (cooked) 1,326 173g 2,294
Broccoli (cooked) 1,259 78g 982
Onions (yellow) 1,220 105g 1,281
Carrots (raw)

Carrots (cooked)







Radishes 954 116g 1,107
Red bell pepper 901 119g 1072
Sweet potatoes (cooked) 766 156g 1,195
Sweetcorn 728 77g 561
Cauliflower 647 50g 324
Green bell pepper 558 119g 664
Pumpkin 483 116g 560
Tomatoes (cooked)

Tomatoes (raw)







Iceberg lettuce 451 32g 144
Cucumber (unpeeled) 115 52g 60

*ORAC score = micromol of TE/100g. Source: Wu X et al. 2004. J. Agric. Food Chem. 52:4067-4037

How to increase your antioxidants

The higher a fruit or vegetable’s ORAC score, the higher its ability to neutralise free radicals and suppress unwanted oxidation reactions. By balancing your intake of foods with high, medium and low ORAC scores you can maximum the antioxidant potential of your diet on a daily basis.

If you select five average servings made up of: blueberries, plums, red kidney beans, spinach and red peppers, for example, you can rack up an astonishing 33,000 ORAC units in a single day. Add a square or two of dark chocolate and your antioxidant intake will be more than optimal.

On the other hand, if your five servings consist of a kiwi, a slice of watermelon, a mixed salad, cauliflower and carrots you would obtain less than 2000 ORAC units – even though you have achieved the recommended five servings a day.

Some guidelines recommend that you eat more than five fruit and veg a day – even as much as ten servings per day.

Fruit versus vegetables

As well as supplying antioxidants, fruit and vegetables also provide other important phytochemicals and nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, trace elements and fibre. Vegetables tend to contain less water than fruit (so are a more concentrated source of nutrients) and less sugar, as well as providing more fibre. Because of this, the majority of the recommended five to ten servings of fruit and vegetables you eat per day (eg 3 out of 5, or 7 out of 10) should ideally be in the form of vegetables rather than fruit, even though vegetables tend to have a lower ORAC score. This is because

How the ORAC test works

The ORAC test measures how well a particular food prevents the breakdown of a chemical (fluorescein) after it is mixed with a strongly oxidant substance (peroxyl radical).

Fluorescein is used because it is luminescent, and the intensity of light it emits decreases as it breaks down. This provides an easy way of measuring how much fluorescein remains intact at set intervals after the fruit or vegetable extract, and the oxidant, are added.

If the food has a low ORAC value, it provides little protection and the mixture’s luminosity rapidly decreases.

If the food has a high ORAC value, it protects the fluorescein from degradation and the sample remains luminescent for longer.

By measuring the intensity of fluorescence in the mixture every 35 minutes after adding the oxidant, scientists develop graphs which are compared with the results from different concentrations of a standard antioxidant related to vitamin E (trolox). The final results  are given as ‘trolox equivalents’ or TE.

Image credits:  eva_babich/shutterstock,

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