Written by: Mick Simmons, MD – Jan 2018
It’s 2018, and the world of nutrition and healthy eating is more sophisticated than ever. It’s no longer quite as black and white as simply following a pyramid’s recommendations for what to eat each day.
Science has come a long way in uncovering what makes our bodies thrive, and what we should fuel them it. There are endless tools to add to your toolbelt for understanding optimal health.
One of these advancements you may or may not be familiar with is ORAC, or Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity, a unit of measurement devised to score foods in terms of their antioxidant value.
Exactly what is ORAC, what does it tell us, and how can we use it in your daily lives to boost our health?
Read on to find out.
How is ORAC Measured?
Orac value is measured as μ mol TE/100g.
Though we’re almost all familiar with well-known health measures like the food pyramid or the old adage to eat your 5 services of fruits and veggies a day, a few slightly more complex predictors of health are available to us now, the ORAC scale being one of them.
You can think of ORAC of something of a sliding scale on which to rate foods in terms of their ability to squash naturally-occurring free radicals in the body. The concept was developed and the phrase coined by The National Institute on Aging—a branch of the better-known National Institutes of Health.
Scientists determined that out of all the foods available to us, some rank higher and some lower in terms of their effects on free radicals in the body and their “total antioxidant capacity” (TAC).
How is this determined?
Essentially, foods are put through a lab test designed to test a food’s ability to protect a vulnerable molecule from the damaging effects of free radicals.
The food sample is placed into a test tube alongside a sample that is known to create free radical damage, as well as a molecule that would be susceptible to this damage. The more a specific food is able to ward off the free radical damage, the higher it’s antioxidant capacity, and the higher its ranking on the ORAC scale.
At the heart of the ORAC scale is the premise that it’s not enough to merely measure a food’s level of a certain mineral or nutrient. For example, if we say that a sweet potato contains X amount of Vitamin C, the ORAC scale then takes this a step further by actually quantifying the efficacy and activity of that vitamin C, rather than its mere presence in the food.
This approach also takes a big picture look at the synergy between many beneficial nutrients in any given food. In other words, the ORAC scale tests the activity of how all of a food’s components work together to deliver overall efficacy.
To understand the benefits of ORAC and how we can use it in our life, we have to back up. First, it’s essential to understand the very thing foods high on the ORAC scale combat—free radicals. And to fully understand free radicals, we have to have a discussion about antioxidants first, since these three are all intrinsically tied.
Why Do We Need Antioxidants?
During normal metabolic processes in the body, a type of atom or molecule commonly known as free radicals are produced. You’ve likely heard of free radicals but may not have been sure exactly what they do or why they’re a bad thing.
In short, free radicals in the body are simply groups of atoms or molecules that have uneven numbers of electrons (as opposed to atoms with neat, even pairs.) These free radicals trigger a whole laundry of list of undesirable effects in the body as they react with other cells. Namely, they’re to blame for the destruction of DNA and cell membranes, which leads to many age-related and degenerative diseases.
Luckily, antioxidants are the molecules that are designed to swoop in and combat this damage that free radicals cause. Heavy-hitter antioxidants that clean up free radicals are common nutrients and vitamins like vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin.
Read more on “What are antioxidant’s and do why we need them”
What Supplements Contain the Highest ORAC Score?
While there’s certainly not just one food you should consume from the ORAC scale, there are a few key players that tend to rank at the top of the spectrum. Here are a few you might want to start incorporating into your diet, if you don’t already.
No matter how you look at it, goji berries are a powerful natural medicine that should certainly be a mainstay in your diet. Just one cup of the jewel-hued little dried berries, which are found growing in the Himalayan mountains (but are readily available in health food stores nowadays,) pack a punch of essential amino acids, iron, calcium, potassium, and a host of beneficial phytochemicals. They’re also a star in terms of ORAC. A serving rank right up there with other superfoods like blueberries and pomegranates seeds, but stands apart thanks to its unique offering of essential amino acids and vitamin C.
Chaga mushrooms are a wild fungus that grow in many areas in the Northern hemisphere, and are a powerhouse player in terms of their antioxidant count and ORAC rating. Chaga has been used in both traditional and alterative medicines for generations, but is enjoying a bit of a moment in the spotlight lately thanks to it’s truly remarkable laundry list of benefits. First and foremost, chaga is known as a powerful antioxidant. Specifically, it contains a huge dose of polysaccharides that support the immune system, as well as regulate your cholesterol and blood sugar. In terms of its ORAC score, chaga actually ranks 3 times higher on the scale than acai berries, which tend to win most of the praise as one of the best superfoods. For perspective, chaga ranks at 146,700 μ mol TE/100g. in terms of ORAC vs capacity, vs acai at 102,700 μ mol TE/100g. Source.
Read almost any guide to healthy eating and you’ll see blueberries on the grocery list. It’s no surprise they’re a health food, so you probably won’t be surprised that they’re also heavy hitters on the ORAC scale. They’re a leading antioxidant, key in fighting off aging, cancer, and a host of other diseases. Blueberry juice specifically is one of the best things you can put into your body, and has the highest ORAC scale when comparing other juices such as grape, pomegranate, and cranberry, so drink up!
This bright yellow spice is used in many ethnic dishes such as curries, and it’s widely thought to be the reason many cultures around the world have far lower rates of diseases such as inflammation, than in the U.S. Turmeric no doubt has a long list of anti-inflammatory benefits in the body, but also is one of the best choices in terms of ORAC scores. You can incorporate this into your diet in the form of the fresh spice or as a tablet.
We wanted to include green tea on this list, because while it’s widely hyped as one of the secrets to a long life and good health, in terms of its ORAC scale, you might be surprised how mediocre green tea actually ranks. For perspective, it’s far lower than the other superfoods on this list, and according to a test by the USDA, ranks lower than the humble russet potato even. Of course, this will vary depending on the type of tea, whether its organic or not, etc., and while green tea certainly is a health food, you don’t need to try to pack in multiple cups a day solely for antioxidant purposes.
See also: Chaga Tea & Recipes
Highest ORAC value in the world: Though different sites will give you different answers as far as what food reigns supreme for ORAC score, the general consensus is that moringa claims the top spot as the food with the highest ORAC value in the world, to date.
ORAC Controversy You Should Know About
If you’re interested in boosting your antioxidant intake, you’re not the only one. For years now, supplement manufacturers and the health industry at large has taken advantage of the ORAC scale to try to promote their supplements or products as #1 in terms of ORAC. Because of this storm of interest and the prevalence of false advertising from supplement companies trying to sell more products, the ORAC scale has come under fire in recent years.
Though well intending, many have criticized the whole concept of ORAC, since it’s unfortunately been used so heavily to simply push product and ultimate mislead the consumer.
As with any health claims, it’s not that simple, and there will never be one magical cure-all.
Other critics of ORAC have pointed out that the testing that determines a food’s ORAC scale occurs in a test tube, not in a live human body, and is therefore nothing more than a laboratory analysis that may or may not ring true for actual human health. Antioxidant researchers have pointed out the lack of conclusive research providing the connection between ORAC results and true clinical outcomes in terms of health.
Antioxidants is an over-simplification, designed to sway purchasing choices, and convince consumers to jump on the antioxidant bandwagon.
See Also: Chaga Buying Guide
The main complaint remains though that food and dietary supplement manufactures have misused ORAC scores to simply promote their products and slap false claims on pill bottles. Jeffrey B. Blumberg, a professor at Tufts University and the director of their Antioxidants Research Laboratory sums it up, pointing out that the message around antioxidants is an over-simplification, designed to sway purchasing choices, and convince consumers to jump on the antioxidant bandwagon, or make a consumer think that antioxidants were truly the cure-all and fountain of youth. Again and again though, we come to realize that health never has been and never will be so black and white.
While many still stand by ORAC as a useful measuring tool, and the web is still rife with discussion of ORAC scores of foods, the general consensus is that looking to a food’s ORAC score alone is an over-simplification—akin to buying a house because it has a great plumbing or electrical system alone, without looking at all the other factors that go into it.
Another concern is that many sites fail to accurately depict a food’s true ORAC score, by merely reporting a number, without specifying the unit, for example if that’s per mg, per 100g, per 1kg, etc. A general lack of consistency or regulation meant that any juice cleanse company could and would skew their data to make their juice seem higher rated than the next brand’s, and the result was a confusing mess of conflicting claims.
ORAC is only one piece of the puzzle of good health
The outcome of all this? In response to the misuse of ORAC by marketers, plus arguments about the validity of ORAC as a true indication of health, the USDA pulled their ORAC chart off their site in 2012, citing both issues as the reason for the removal.
The response has been mixed, with many claiming it’s still a valuable tool, and others agreeing that the lack of regulation allowed it to get out of control.
What should you believe? In short, ORAC is only one piece of the puzzle of good health, and we should keep our head on straight when we see claims that superfoods or supplements are the end-all-be-all for our health.
The good news is that despite the plethora of modern-day health concerns that are impossible to ignore, many of the solutions to our wellbeing rests in our hands—specifically, in what we fill our plates with. There is simply no medicine more powerful than the foods already existing in nature.
While ORAC is just one measuring tool to help us make healthier choices and has been tainted with controversy in recent years, one fact remains. Measures of health will come and go, but nothing will ever replace the common-sense advice that’s been proven hundreds of times over: to eat a rainbow of various foods, brightly hued berries, vibrant greens, whole grains, and plenty of spices and herbs.
Stick to this advice, and you’ll inadvertently end up piling your plate high with the powerful antioxidants ORAC was designed to promote.
Read Next: Chaga Buying Guide