From warding off heart disease to slowing degeneration of the brain and eyes, talk of the health benefits of antioxidants are quite common today. Antioxidants work by neutralizing highly reactive, destructive compounds called free radicals.
Free radical production is actually a normal part of life, part of the equation of simply breathing in oxygen. Usually, the body’s natural defense systems neutralize free radicals that develop, rendering them harmless. However, environmental assaults on the body, such as UV-radiation, pollutants and alcohol, can overpower the body’s ability to neutralize free radicals, allowing them to cause damage to the structure and function of the body’s cells. There is good evidence that this damage contributes to aging and leads to a host of illnesses, including cancer and heart disease.
Consuming more antioxidants helps provide the body with tools to neutralize harmful free radicals. It’s estimated that there are more than 4,000 compounds in foods that act as antioxidants. The most studied include vitamins C and E, betacarotene and the mineral selenium.
Many people think “supplements” when they think about getting more antioxidants. The supplement aisle, however, is not the only place to find these important compounds. Better places include the produce section, the frozen fruit and vegetable section and the whole grains section of your supermarket. Why? Because the foods in these sections come packaged with other complementary nutrients and phytochemicals. They can provide better insurance than supplements that you’re getting the antioxidants you need in the right amount and form. Here are some good food sources of the four most studied antioxidants.
• Vitamin C — Also called ascorbic acid, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin found in all body fluids, so it may be one of our first lines of defense. This powerful antioxidant cannot be stored by the body, so it’s important to get some regularly — not a difficult task if you eat fruits and vegetables. Important sources include citrus fruits, green peppers, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, strawberries, raw cabbage and potatoes.
• Vitamin E — A fat-soluble vitamin that can be stored with fat in the liver and other tissues, vitamin E is promoted for a range of purposes — from delaying aging to healing sunburn. While it’s not a miracle worker, it’s another powerful antioxidant. Important sources include wheat germ, nuts, seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, vegetable oil and fish-liver oil.
• Beta-carotene — The most studied of more than 600 different carotenoids that have been discovered, beta-carotene protects dark green, yellow and orange vegetables and fruits from solar radiation damage. It is thought that it plays a similar role in the body. Carrots, squash, broccoli, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, kale, collards, cantaloupe, peaches and apricots are particularly rich sources of beta-carotene.
• Selenium — This mineral is thought to help fight cell damage by oxygen-derived compounds and thus may help protect against cancer. It is best to get selenium through foods, as large doses of the supplement form can be toxic. Good food sources include fish, shellfish, red meat, grains, eggs, chicken and garlic. Vegetables can also be a good source if grown in selenium-rich soils.
By Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D.
Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist
Colorado State University Cooperative Extension