For one reason or another, thinking about, living with and treating cancer has been a big part of the lives of my friends and family over the past year. Perhaps this has something to do with my current location, but I’m not so sure. Frankly, it is becoming more and more apparent to me that cancer is the new flu. Many of us will get it and, luckily, a growing proportion of us will survive it. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment, as they say. And our diets are a big part of that preventative effort.
The term “antioxidant” is one of those vaguely scientific, overly used words that makes my eyes lose focus. It’s up there with “nutraceutical” and “isoflavanoid.” But I decided to make a bigger effort to include antioxidant-rich food in my diet, so I decided to figure out exactly what it meant.
Antioxidants are molecules that retard the process of oxidation in human cells. Oxidation is a chemical change brought on by oxygen, pollutants or stress, among other reasons. Through oxidation, a normal cell becomes unstable and joins a chain reaction of “free radicals” – cells that contain an odd number of electrons (I know, hello high school biology! for a refresher, this offers a great rundown). Anyway, as a result of the un-matched electron, molecules can’t bond together and the cell becomes unstable and goes through rapid and unpredictable changes. This cellular damage can be the initial stage of cancer. An antioxidant stops this chain reaction of cellular change by protecting healthy cells from oxidation, breaking the domino effect.
While there is some discussion about how useful antioxidants are in stopping cancer, my feeling is that they rarely hurt (except in this study where male smokers in Finland who took selenium – an antioxidant – had a greater fatality rate due to lung cancer than their placebo-taking counterparts). Several studies have shown that those who rely on a diet that is richer in fruits and vegetables (thus antioxidants, among other nutrients) have lower instances of cancer, but no study has been able to find causality yet. Many of the inconclusive studies have provided their subjects with antioxidants in pill form, which could explain the antioxidants’ futility. There really is something about eating a whole food as it exists in nature that provides optimum nutrition. However, the usefulness of antioxidants has gained enough credibility to warrant several studies by the USDA and CDC, the former of which conducts regular evaluations of the top food sources of antioxidants. I have listed the top antioxidants by three different measures: the TAC system, the ORAC system and a measure of one compound: sulforaphane.
TAC: This is fairly self explanatory, as it stands for Total Antioxidant Capacity.
- Mexican red beans (13,727 TACs for ½ cup)
- Wild blueberries (13,427 TACs for 1 cup)
- Red kidney beans (13,259 TACs for ½ cup)
- Pinto beans (11,864 TACs for 1/2 cup)
- Farmed blueberries (9,019 for 1 cup)
- Cranberries (8,983 TACs for 1 cup of whole cranberries)
- Cooked artichoke hearts (7,904 TACs for 1 cup)
- Blackberries (7,701 for 1 cup)
- Raisins (7,291 for 1/2 cup)
- Raspberries (6,058 for 1 cup)
ORAC: A newer measure, ORAC stands for ‘oxygen radical absorbance capacity’ and was used in a 2007 USDA study. It is considered more precise because it takes into account a “lag phase,” which is a period during which a substance briefly stops movement when it is introduced to a new environment. Many of the highest ORAC scorers were herbs, which I didn’t include, because it didn’t seem realistic to eat large quantities of herbs in a sitting. Each ORAC score corresponds to 3.5 ounces or 100 grams.
- Raw sumac bran (309,900)
- Hi-tannin sorghum bran (240,000)
- Black sorghum bran (100,800)
- Unsweetned raw dry cocoa powder (80,933)
- Red sorghum bran (71,000)
- Unsweetened baking chocolate (49,926)
- Raw goji berries (25,300)
- Pecans (17,524)
- Raw chokeberry (16,062)
- Raw ginger root (14,840)
- Raw elderberry (14,500)
- Walnuts (13,541)
- Hazelnuts (9,645)
- Raw cranberries (9,584)
- Dried pears (9,496)
- Boiled Artichokes (9,416)
- Raw pistachios (7,983)
- European black currants – raw (7,960)
- Raw plums (7,581)
- Dried Agave (7,274)
- White chia seed (7,000)
- Raw blueberries (6,552)
- Raw prunes (6,552)
- Raw soybeans (5,764)
- Cab-Sav Wine (5,034)
Sulforaphane: Some people believe that the level of this element is more important than measuring ORAC or TAC, because those only describe what is in the food, not what is bioavailable to the human body. By contrast, scientists know that sulforaphane is absorbed readily, inciting enzyme activity that protects healthy cells long after the actual sulforaphane has left your system. Any cruciferous vegetable, especially in the brassica family (broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, etc) is high in glucoraphane, which is transformed into sulforaphane through the process of “plant damage” (e.g. chewing…). The best source is broccoli sprouts. See this study for more information.
- Brussel sprouts
- Bok choy
- Broccoli sprouts
- Chinese broccoli
- Broccoli raab
While the jury is still out on the cancer-fighting properties of these items, ingesting them can only help. Not only in terms of stabilizing our atoms (although that’s important too!), but by increasing the number of whole, nutrient-rich, plant-based foods we consume.
A friendly reminder: I am not a doctor – I just read their research papers on the internets…