Superfruits: Back to Basics

You do not have to travel to faraway places to get your antioxidants.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Turn on the television, open your newspaper, pick up your favorite consumer magazine, check the web -- chances are there will be an article touting the health benefits of superfruits, fruit containing exceptional nutrients and antioxidants, often with a unique taste.

Nutritionists and moms know that all fruits -- fresh, frozen, canned or freeze-dried -- are good for you. But in 2005, marketers in the food & beverage industry coined the term superfruit to describe those fruits that were particularly high in nutrients, especially antioxidants.

Unfortunately, the term usually was used to describe exotic fruits, many of them new to American consumers. That’s grossly unfair, as some traditional American crops deliver just as much in the way of antioxidants and other nutrients as fruits that travel halfway around the globe.

In these tough economic times, consumers are going back to basics and food options closer to home. As they do, surely they will appreciate the less heralded American-grown superfoods: blueberries, strawberries, cherries, blackberries, cranberries, grapes, plums, and raisins, which offer as many nutrients and antioxidants in their plump, compact shapes as their foreign cousins. And they offer product formulators the same opportunity to deliver potent antioxidants in new products.

Fight the free radicals
Antioxidants, important disease-fighting compounds, are believed to help prevent and repair the stress that comes from oxidation, a natural process that occurs during normal cell function. A small percentage of cells becomes damaged during oxidation and turns into free radicals, which can start a harmful chain reaction. Pollution, sunlight, smoking and alcohol also contribute to oxidation, and unchecked free radical activity has been linked to cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Antioxidants are nutrients (vitamins and minerals) and enzymes that combat free radicals. Berries – blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries -- contain the most antioxidant bang for the buck, according to a major study assessing antioxidant levels in 100 foods, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. In fact, just one cup of most berries provides all the disease-fighting antioxidants you need in a single day.

Developed by USDA, Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) is the rating scale that measures antioxidant content in foods. USDA recommends eating foods that contain at least 3,000 ORAC units a day. While berries as a class are stars of the list, the actual leaders are spices: Ground cloves are No.1 with an ORAC value of 314,446, followed by sumac bran, ground cinnamon, sorghum bran and dried oregano. Exotic superfruit acai berry is No. 6 with a score of 161,400.

Among the classic American berries, wild blueberries are the overall ORAC winner: One cup has 13,427 antioxidant units, vitamins A and C, plus flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) querticin and anthocyanidin. That’s more than four times the USDA’s recommendation in just one cup. Cultivated blueberries have 6,552 in two-thirds of a cup and are equally vitamin-rich.

Cranberries are also antioxidant powerhouses (9,584), followed by black plums (6,259), blackberries (5,347), raspberries (4,882), strawberries (3,577) and cherries (3,365).
Dried versions of fruits contain good doses of antioxidants, as well. Half a cup packs quite a punch: prunes/dried plums (6,552), dates (3,895), figs (3,383), and raisins (3,037).

How does one get the most antioxidants from fruit? Even with a high antioxidant content, the body does not absorb all of it. The concept is bioavailability, explains Ronald Prior, a chemist and nutritionist with the USDA’s Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center in Little Rock, Ark.

“Bioavailability has to do with absorption or metabolism in the gut,” Prior explains. “What’s absorbed will be impacted by the mechanical structure of different antioxidants in food -- if they’re tied up with fiber or if they have sugar molecules attached.” He told WebMD that by mildly steaming blueberries, the antioxidant level was enhanced, making more antioxidants available to the body. 

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