Antioxidants 101

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Antioxidants are the body’s anti-aging, disease fighting super-enzymes that protect it from oxidative damage. What is oxidative damage? Think about an apple or avocado turning brown, or rust that forms on metal when it’s left outside for too long–that’s oxidative damage. It’s literally the aging of our cells. Whenever our cells use oxygen they produce harmful by-products called free-radicals. These free-radicals are responsible for the oxidative damage that contributes to the development of numerous health problems including: heart disease, inflammation, atherosclerosis, blood clots, premature aging, bad skin, macular degeneration, diabetes, cancer, DNA damage, and many others. Antioxidants act to neutralize free-radicals and protect our body from the excessive damage that results.

How Do Antioxidants and Free-Radicals Work?

In order to truly understand how antioxidants and free-radicals function, it’s important to understand how they work on the cellular level. Atoms have an outer shell that contains 8 electrons. When this shell is full the atom is stable, when it’s not full (when it has less than 8 electrons) it’s unstable. An atom’s goal is always to be stable. Atoms bond with other unstable atoms by giving, taking, or sharing an electron.

Free-radicals are naturally occurring, unstable oxygen atoms that are missing an electron from their outer shell. Like all other atoms, a free-radical’s goal is to find an electron so that it can become stable. They float around the body searching ruthlessly for healthy cells/molecules that they can steal an electron from. Once the free-radical steals an electron from a healthy molecule, that target molecule now becomes a new free-radical (it has one less electron now, making it unstable). This newly created free-radical now repeats the same process and searches for another healthy molecule to steal an electron from. This process goes on and on and sets off a chain reaction which causes cell and tissue damage, the aforementioned diseases, and early aging.

Antioxidants are like the anti-terrorist forces of our body. Their job is to repair oxidative damage, seek out any nasty free-radicals floating throughout the body, and prevent them from harming healthy cells. Antioxidants have an unusual characteristic which allows them to remain stable when they have fewer than 8 electrons in their outer shell. When an antioxidant finds a free-radical it donates an electron, which neutralizes the free-radical by making it stable. Because of an antioxidant’s unusual properties it does not become a free-radical itself when it donates an electron.

How Do I Get More Antioxidants?

Although the body produces antioxidants naturally as enzymes, it doesn’t produce nearly enough on its own to fully protect the body against free-radicals. If naturally produced free-radicals weren’t bad enough, even more are created via pollution, cigarette smoke, and other environmental factors. Because of this it’s critical to provide the body with a constant supply of antioxidants through foods and drinks rich in antioxidant content. You’ll stay younger, healthier, and be less prone to disease. Here are a few different types of antioxidant vitamins, enzymes, and chemicals.

Antioxidant Vitamins

Vitamin E: nuts and seeds, avocados, olive/safflower/sunflower oils, wheat germ, liver, leafy green vegetables.
Vitamin C: (aka ascorbic acid): citrus fruits, green peppers, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, strawberries, tomatoes, cantaloupe, potatoes.
Vitamin A: Beta-Carotene and carotenoids: orange/green/yellow vegetables and fruits such as squash, cantaloupe, mango, papaya, pumpkin, green leafy vegetables.
Selenium: seafood, red meat, pork, chicken, wheat bread, eggs, chicken, garlic

Other Antioxidants and Phytochemicals

Flavonoids / polyphenols: (such as anthocyanins, resveratrol, quercitin, and catechins): red wine, purple grapes, blueberries, cranberries, pomegranate, cranberries, tea.
Lycopene: Tomato and tomato products, pink grapefruit, watermelon
Lutein: dark green leafy vegetables
Lignan: flax seed and other seeds, oatmeal
Phytic Acid: Whole grains, beans
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10): Comes in supplement/pill form

Best Sources of Antioxidants

The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry measured the antioxidant content of over 100 common foods, they ranked as follows:

Rank Food Item Serving Size

Total Antioxidant Capacity

Per Serving Size

1 Small Red Bean (dried) Half cup 13727
2 Wild blueberry 1 cup 13427
3 Red kidney bean (dried) Half cup 13259
4 Pinto bean Half cup 11864
5 Blueberry (cultivated) 1 cup 9019
6 Cranberry 1 cup (whole) 8983
7 Artichoke (cooked) 1 cup (hearts) 7904
8 Blackberry 1 cup 7701
9 Dried Prune Half cup 7291
10 Raspberry 1 cup 6058
11 Strawberry 1 cup 5938
12 Red Delicious apple One 5900
13 Granny Smith apple One 5381
14 Pecan 1 ounce 5095
15 Sweet cherry 1 cup 4873
16 Black plum One 4844
17 Russet potato (cooked) One 4649
18 Black bean (dried) Half cup 4181
19 Plum One 4118
20 Gala apple One 3903

Interestingly, beans, potatoes, and pecans rank amongst the top 20. Red wine, blueberries, green tea, and dark chocolate have been long-touted as the kings of powerful antioxidant content, but many other foods also have extremely high antioxidant capabilities.

Overall great sources of antioxidants

  • Red Wine and red grapes
  • Green Tea and other teas
  • Coffee
  • Different types of berries: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, etc.
  • Tomatoes
  • Spinach, kale, brussel sprouts
  • Potatoes
  • All types of fruits and vegetables
  • Acai
  • High Cocao content chocolate, in particular dark chocolate
  • Beans
  • Flax seeds and other types of seeds
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains
  • Garlic
  • A variety of spices such as cinnamon, cloves, oregano, and turmeric

Spices tend to have very high antioxidant content compared to whole foods (even higher than blueberries, acai, or red wine). Antioxidant content in foods is measured by ORAC score (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity).

ORAC scores of a few common spices and foods

Food Serving


(umol TE per serving)

Cinnamon (ground) 1 tsp 6956
Cloves (ground) 1 tsp 6199
Pomegranate Juice 1/2 cup 5853
Red Wine 5 fl. oz 5693
Oregano (dried) 1 tsp 3602
Turmeric (ground) 1 tsp 3504
Blueberries 1/2 cup 4792
Green Tea (brewed) 1 cup 2970
Strawberries 1/2 cup 2969
Parsley (dried) 1 tsp 1869
Asparagus 1/2 cup 1441
Red Grapes 1/2 cup 951

There are tons of delicious sources of antioxidants. There’s no reason to spend a lot of money on expensive antioxidant supplements or pills. Every day try to choose as many foods as possible with high antioxidant content. Grab an orange as a healthy snack, sip a cup of green tea or coffee in the morning before work or school, or just sprinkle some blueberries and cinnamon on a big bowl of oatmeal. The possibilities are endless, get creative with it!