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Understanding Antioxidants

By Nadia McMorran

They protect our cells from the damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals occur naturally in our bodies, however there are many lifestyle considerations that can increase the levels of free radicals in our body, leading to oxidative stress. This includes poor diet, exposure to toxic chemicals and air pollution, smoking and alcohol consumption. High levels of free radicals in our body can cause damage to our cells, DNA, and contribute to disease and premature ageing. These days, many people don’t consume enough antioxidants in their diet in order to counteract the damage being done by free radicals. ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) is a way to measure the activity of antioxidants in different foods. The USDA recommends consuming at least 3000-5000 ORAC units each day, however, there is no set recommendation in New Zealand. Consuming 5000 ORAC units each day can be easily achieved through eating foods with high ORAC values, such as berries, legumes, nuts, apples, cacao and various spices. ORAC values are determined in lab testing which attempts to measure the total antioxidant capacity in a particular food. A sample of the food is combined with particular fluorescent molecules along with molecules that generate free radicals. As the free radicals are being produced, the fluorescent molecules become damaged and begin to lose their fluorescence. The speed at which this happens is what the ORAC calculation is based on, for that particular food or antioxidant. When food is high in antioxidants, it counteracts the free radical activity therefore inhibiting the loss of fluorescence, resulting in a higher ORAC value. Spices often contain the highest ORAC values, however, because it is measured in ORAC units per 100g, it just wouldn’t be practical to consume such large quantities in order to get these high numbers.