Berry Healthy: Health Benefits from Antioxidant-Rich Foods
Michael Arnold Glueck M.D. & Robert J. Cihak M.D. Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004
A formerly wise old gourmet once said that anything rich, creamy and delicious must be bad for your health. Well, get out your spoons, forks and mats, because salivating is now permitted.

In a recent food Olympics, a variety of fruits, vegetables and nuts battled it out for the top spot on a new list of the 20 most antioxidant-rich foods, ranked by nutrition scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and reported by the University of Alabama website, November 1, 2004.

Wild blueberries were narrowly beaten out by small red beans, which captured the red-blue medal, as the food with the highest concentration of disease-fighting compounds per serving.

Antioxidants fight damage to cells from villain molecules called "free radicals." This assault on cells may fuel killer diseases such as heart disease and cancer, and even aging itself.

The new Top 20 list, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, is a ranking of the capacity of foods to interfere with or prevent oxidative processes and to scavenge free radicals," explains list co-creator Ronald L. Prior, a USDA nutritionist and research chemist based in Little Rock, Ark.

Prior and his colleagues used the most advanced technologies available to tabulate antioxidant levels in more than 100 different types of berries, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and spices.

The Top 20 list includes:

  • Small red beans (dried)
  • Wild blueberries
  • Red Kidney beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Blueberries (cultivated)
  • Cranberries
  • Artichokes (cooked)
  • Blackberries
  • Prunes
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Red Delicious apples
  • Granny Smith apples
  • Pecans
  • Sweet cherries
  • Black plums
  • Russet potatoes (cooked)
  • Black beans (dried)
  • Plums
  • Gala apples


    "Even though the small red bean came out on top, berries are better understood," Prior says.

    "The components that contribute a lot of the antioxidant activity are what are called anthocyanins, the compounds that give many berries their dark blue color," he says.

    Color may be key to identifying foods that fight free radicals, says Roberta Anding, an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman and a nutritionist at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.

    "If you're looking for the best places to get antioxidants, I will usually tell folks to look at the colors of the rainbow," she says.

    Anding explains, "You'll find lutein with some of the yellow pigments found in corn; orange can be the pigments from the carotenoid family that are found in cantaloupe, butternut squash, and mango; red could come from things like lycopene, found in tomatoes and watermelon. And then the darker colors - the purples, blues, in berries," she says.

    Prior cautioned that just because a food has proven to be antioxidant-rich in the USDA's lab, that does not mean all those nutrients will be successfully absorbed by the human digestive tract.

    "As we learn more and more, we're finding that, depending on the chemical makeup of antioxidants in different foods, some of them aren't apparently absorbed as well, or else they are metabolized in a form where they are no longer antioxidants," he says.

    Whether a food is eaten fresh, frozen, processed, or cooked can also affect its antioxidant potency, Prior says. Blueberries are best when eaten fresh rather than cooked in a pie, for example. On the other hand, he notes that research has shown that gentle cooking raises the antioxidant power of tomatoes.

    Although experts are working hard on the project, ongoing efforts to come up with daily dietary guidelines for antioxidant consumption will be "a long process," Prior says.

    In addition, new American Heart Association guidelines for prevention of heart disease in women advise against using antioxidant supplements to decrease heart disease risk. Instead, get antioxidants from foods.

    Anding further notes that people should not focus on one particular food, but attempt to consume daily servings of a variety of fruits, vegetables, and other wholesome foods.

    Although cherries are not actually berries we consume them in much the same manner. In a column titled, "Eat your sunscreen," Gloria McVeigh writes in July 2004 Prevention that "In studies on people, animals and cancer cells, certain nutrients blocked ultraviolet sunlight-triggered changes that can lead to cancer."

    She adds, "Tart cherries. . . are rich in perillyl alcohol, recently shown to stop cancer formation in human cells under intense UV light."

    When that "gotta have something sweet" urge hits, jewel toned berries "gentle tartness pairs deliciously with creamy low fat whipped topping or low sugar chocolate sauce. This, another Prevention Magazine short nutrition article, suggests Driscoll's long-stemmed strawberries.

    So eat your berries daily to obtain all those very berry health benefits. If you want you can add beans for that extra toot - but that meal is for another day.

    In sum, a bag of berries a day will help keep the medical and surgical specialists away.

    Editor's Note: Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., prepared this week's healthy commentary.

    Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is a Senior Fellow and Board Member of the Discovery Institute and a past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple-award-winning writer who comments on medical-legal issues.