Labels on everything from chocolate bars to bottled teas are touting their antioxidant awesomeness. And for good reason: a spate of research has found that antioxidants can help reduce the risk for a laundry list of ailments including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Environmental pollution, sunlight, deep-fried foods, vigorous exercise, and everyday metabolism are among the many instigators of free-radical production in the human body. Once they get going, nefarious free radicals can damage any cells that get in their way as they bounce around the body. Left unchecked, this can spiral into any number of chronic diseases and accelerate aging.
Thankfully, a police force roaming your insides called antioxidants help mop up free radicals before they can do serious harm. Antioxidants also tend to choose their own battlefields, so while one may work in the eyes, another could target your heart to help keep it beating strong.
A number of foods from fruits to whole grains provide a dietary source of these disease-fighting good guys, but if you really want to load up on them, try incorporating these gems into your diet more often. What’s more, you can make them work even harder for you with a few tweaks to how you choose, store, or cook them.
Who knew that jaunty kale contains more beta carotene than sweet potatoes and carrots? Increased consumption of the antioxidant beta carotene in the diet may reduce heart disease risk by about 20 percent, according to a Journal of Nutrition study. Nutritional overachiever kale is also brimming with lutein, a separate carotenoid antioxidant that protects eye health.
Antioxidant upgrade Go ahead and fatten up your salads. Studies suggest that adding a healthy fat such as avocado, olive oil, or nuts to salads improves the body’s absorption of carotenoids in vegetables such as kale. Why the boost? Carotenoids are fat-soluble antioxidants, so they need, go figure, some fat for proper uptake.
Use it Enjoy robust kale raw in salads or incorporate into broth soups, casseroles, and stir-fries. Also, gently sauté the ruffled leaves with some garlic and sesame oil.
Extra-virgin olive oil
The peppery bite that a good extra-virgin olive oil provides is courtesy of oleocanthal, an antioxidant compound that has strong anti-inflammatory tendencies. It is now widely accepted that chronic inflammation in the body contributes to a host of maladies including heart disease and diabetes. Generous consumption of olive oil in the Mediterranean diet is believed to be one reason for its association with low heart disease rates.
Antioxidant upgrade A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry discovered that exposing olive oil to heat reduces the activity of oleocanthal. So keep your extra-virgin olive oil, which contains much more oleocanthal than refined olive oils, out of the frying pan.
Use it To quell inflammation, incorporate extra-virgin olive oil into salad dressings, pesto, and dips. Or drizzle over soups, grilled fish, and hearty multigrain bread.
Though often cast aside for more lauded nuts such as almonds and walnuts, the humble peanut is well endowed with phenolic compounds and vitamin E, giving it a serious one-two antioxidant punch. A study from Swedish researchers found that high levels of the antioxidant vitamin E in the blood is associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Antioxidant upgrade Here’s some surprising news: a study by scientists at the US Department of Agriculture found that roasting peanuts magnifies their antioxidant power, giving you more bang for your buck. Plus, it makes them that much more toothsome.
Use them In the oven or in a skillet on the stovetop, toast peanuts until darkened and fragrant. Sprinkle on salads, ice cream, soups, and Asian-inspired stir-fries.
A star among its chocolate brethren, according to scientists at the US Department of Agriculture, virtuous cocoa powder has more antioxidants than most fruits and vegetables, including vaunted blueberries, spinach, and broccoli.
Its antioxidant plethora is even four times greater than that of dark chocolate bars. The flavonoid antioxidants in cocoa powder, including procyanidins and epicatechins increase nitric oxide, a substance that relaxes blood vessels to lower blood pressure, thereby slashing heart disease and stroke risk.
Antioxidant upgrade When possible, choose “natural” or “raw” cocoa powder over “Dutch-processed,” which is treated with alkali to temper the bitter flavour but unfortunately lays waste to most of the flavonoids in the process.
Use it Cocoa powder can give smoothies, oatmeal, and vinaigrettes lashings of decadence. Or combine with spices and herbs and use as a rub for meats or tofu.
Green tea is at the top of the functional beverage heap thanks to a wallop of a supercharged antioxidant called EGCG, purported to do everything from fighting certain cancers to boosting eye and oral health, and even aiding weight loss.
Antioxidant upgrade With so much antioxidant potency, it might be tempting to get green tea past your lips as quickly as possible, but here is a case where patience is a virtue. Scientists in New Zealand determined that letting green tea steep for more than three minutes can significantly increase the antioxidant power of the liquid in your mug.
Use it Try substituting steeped green tea for broth when making soups or use it to poach fish in.
The crux of watermelon’s nutritional prowess is its abundance of the phytochemical lycopene, which lends the oblong fruit its blush. Harvard scientists discovered that subjects with the highest levels of lycopene coursing through their blood were only half as likely to develop cardiovascular disease as those with low amounts. One cup also serves up 21 percent of the daily requirement for the antioxidant vitamin C—for just 46 calories.
Antioxidant upgrade Interestingly, a study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found whole watermelon kept at room temperature can increase its lycopene levels by up to 40 percent, whereas fruit stored in the fridge shows little change. Once cut, though, watermelon should be refrigerated to preserve flavour and juicy goodness.
Use it Surprisingly versatile, watermelon can vivify spinach or watercress salads, vinaigrettes, salsas, gazpachos, bruschetta, chutneys, and compotes.
Scan any list of so-called superfoods and you’ll surely find blueberries right there at the top. They are low in calories, packed with hunger-quelling fibre, and teeming with anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are antioxidants linked to a number of health benefits, including improving insulin sensitivity and cholesterol numbers plus reducing cognitive decline by protecting the brain from oxidative damage.
Antioxidant upgrade Not only do they have a more intense, tangy flavour, but wild blueberries have a higher concentration of antioxidants than their plumper cultivated counterparts, according to a Cornell University study. Thankfully, frozen wild blueberries are just as nutritious as harder-to-come-by fresh versions.
Use them As delicious as they are by the handful, blueberries are just as wonderful in salads, cereal, yogourt, sauces, salsas, and smoothies.
One reason why an apple a day can keep the doctor at bay is an ample dose of the antioxidant quercetin. This antioxidant appears to be an ally in the battle against cancer by helping kill off cancerous cells and protecting cell DNA from oxidative damage.
Antioxidant upgrade Leave the peeler in the drawer and just give apples a good wash. It turns out almost all of the quercetin found in an apple is contained within its skin. What’s more, researchers in Japan found that pectin, a fibre present in apple skin, can boost the absorption of quercetin in the body.
Use them For a healthy snack, slice up an apple and dip into almond or peanut butter. Unpeeled apple slices can also gussy up salads, crisps, and gratins.
About the Author
Matthew Kadey, MSc, RD, is an Ontario-based dietician, food writer, and recipe developer. muffintinmania.com