Can Foods Forestall Aging?

Scientists are excited about a new way of measuring the antioxidant power and health-promoting benefits of foods, and some foods are emerging as true superstars.

Studies at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (Tufts University in Boston) suggest that consuming fruits and vegetables with a high-ORAC value may help slow the aging process in both body and brain. The ORAC value is a measure of the antioxidant power of a food - that is, how much ability the tested food has, with its’ particular combination of antioxidants, against specific damaging radicals.

Here’s how it works: Your body is under constant attack from compounds called “free radicals” which do cellular and DNA damage and are involved in virtually every degenerative disease. Free radicals are actually “rogue electrons” that have gotten loose from the oxygen molecules in which they normally orbit, and they damage your body in much the same way as oxygen “damages” apple slices left in the air on the kitchen table, “aging” it and turning it brown. This process is known as “oxidation”, and anti-oxidants fight it much as lemon juice fights the browning of the apple- that’s why antioxidants are such an important component of your healthy lifestyle choices.

But scientists are beginning to understand that the disease-fighting ability of a high-antioxidant food is greater than the sum of its parts. Antioxidants in combination produce more protective capacity than individual antioxidants. Just as the strength of a basketball team comes from the way the players play together rather than from any one superstar, foods behave in unique ways when all their components work together to give you the best nutritional bang for your buck.

In research, foods with high ORAC value have prevented some loss of long-term memory and learning ability in middle aged rats, maintained the ability of their brain cells to respond to stimuli, and protected their blood vessels against damage. Scientists suspect that high ORAC foods- with their high levels of antioxidants in powerful combinations- could benefit people in much the same way.

Some of the highest rated ORAC foods include:

FoodsORAC Rating
Prunes5,770
Raisins2,830
Blueberries2,400
Blackberries2,036
Kale1,770
Cranberries1,750
Strawberries1,540
Pomegranates1,245
Raspberries1,220
Spinach1,260

In the future, you’re sure to see more foods as new and more sophisticated ORAC-type tests are developed, but the take home point for now: Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and get as many antioxidants as possible.