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Beans, blueberries top antioxidant list

Some foods with high levels aren't always the best option. Variety is recommended.

June 21, 2004|Jane E. Allen | Times Staff Writer

If you're looking to get the biggest antioxidant boost for your bite, you might want to pile more beans, berries, apples and cooked artichokes on your plate. Maybe sprinkle on a few pecans.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have calculated the antioxidant content of more than 100 common foods, including vegetables, fresh and dried fruits, nuts, spices, breads, snacks, cereals and baby foods.

Measured per serving, the 10 foods that pack the most antioxidants are small red beans, wild blueberries, red kidney beans, pinto beans, cultivated blueberries, cranberries, cooked artichoke hearts, blackberries, prunes and raspberries.

Strawberries, Red Delicious apples, Granny Smith apples, pecans and sweet cherries are next on the list.

The findings, published in the June 9 edition of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, suggest that many followers of low-carb diets, who often avoid fruit, are likely shortchanging themselves of potential nutritional benefits, said lead author Ronald L. Prior, a chemist and nutritionist with the USDA's Arkansas Children's Nutrition Center in Little Rock.

Antioxidants are chemicals that gobble up damaging free radicals -- oxygen molecules that can be thought of as the cellular "rust" associated with aging and the development of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Among the study's findings:

* Pecans, walnuts and hazelnuts top the list of nuts.

* Among herbs and spices, the highest concentrations of antioxidants were found in cloves, cinnamon, turmeric and oregano. However, most herbs and spices are added in such small quantities for flavoring that they may not be an especially significant source.

* The best sources of antioxidants among grain-based foods tested were servings of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals.

Nutritionists have long said that the healthiest diet is rich in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Selecting particular foods merely because they have particularly high levels of antioxidants won't necessarily make you healthier, Prior said.

That's because the body absorbs and uses various types of antioxidants in different ways. For example, baked or boiled Russet potatoes (weighing 10.5 ounces) score very high in total antioxidants (17th on the top 20 list), but contain a type that doesn't seem to get absorbed into the bloodstream. Any beneficial antioxidant effect from the potato likely would be limited to cells in the gastrointestinal tract, Prior said.

Roger A. Clemens, a nutritionist and biological chemist at the USC School of Pharmacy, welcomed the new information but noted that the role played by antioxidant compounds remains largely unknown. "Some of them may reduce the likelihood of disease, but we don't know at what dose and in what form."

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