Goji berries. Superfood or Health Hype?

No doubt you've heard the fuss about superfoods such as Noni juice, mangosteen, acai fruit and Goji berries. Many people claim that these berries have cured their disease, given them unlimited energy and changed their lives. Chances are you've seen advertisements for these "superfoods" and may have checked into them only to find them high-priced and sometimes only available online or from a multilevel sales distributor. What makes these exotic fruits so healthy anyway, and are they really superior to the more common healthy foods? 

In their favor, these exotics contain high amounts of anti-oxidants. Antioxidants are nutrients such as vitamins C and E, betacarotene, selenium and manganese that neutralize free radicals in the body. Very simply put, free radicals are the bad guys that are caused by oxidation and lead to cell damage or cell death, and when there is too much oxidation disease and age-related degeneration follow. So, antioxidants clean up the bad guys and help your cells stay healthy.

It's important to note than some oxidation is natural and necessary; to kill invasive bacteria and renegade cells, for instance. The free radicals that follow do cause some damage but they also stimulate the body's repair mechanisms. This is how the body takes care of exposure to environmental pollution, pesticides in our food, and involuntarily breathing in cigarette smoke. Oxidation also happens when cells make energy out of glucose, the brain's favorite fuel. 

But problems occur when the body is so overwhelmed with toxins that it can't neutralize free radicals effectively. This is why we need the kinds of compounds found in superfoods and spices. But you don't need to join a multi-level marketing program to get the kind of nutrients in fancy juices. Scientists and researchers have found that many common foods contain high amounts of these disease fighting components. The US Department of Agriculture publicized the ORAC system to help us identify readily available foods that contain lots of anti-oxidants. 

ORAC Values of Common Superfoods

ORAC stands for oxy radical absorbance capacity value. In other words, edibles that neutralize free radicals. The higher the ORAC value, the more antioxidants. Some foods that you may already be eating make the superfood list:

  • Beets
  • Spinach
  • Berries
  • Tomatoes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Green and black tea

So there's a start. However, we also need to look at herbs and spices since they contain some of the highest amounts of antioxidants. Consider upping your intake of cinnamon, rosemary, and turmeric. These flavorings appear at the top of the list, and it's so easy to add a sprinkle of cinnamon to your coffee or oatmeal. Rosemary tastes great in potato dishes, and turmeric is the signature spice in delicious Indian cuisine.

The USDA recommends we get 3,000-5,000 ORAC "points" daily. But according to many health professionals that amount should be higher, more like 30,000 for disease prevention.

Common foods that top the list and their ORAC values (per 100 grams) include:

  • cocoa powder 55,653
  • wild blueberries, cranberries, raspberries 9,621-5,065
  • pecans, walnuts 17,940, 13,541
  • golden raisins 10,450
  • artichokes 9,416
  • kidney beans 8,606
  • cabbage 3,145
  • red leaf lettuce 2,426
  • green tea 1,253
  • Portabella mushrooms 968

Notice cocoa powder at the top. Cocoa (not chocolate candy) has an ORAC value of 55,653. Pretty high considering the exotic superfood juices we mentioned at the beginning of the article have ORAC values of 800-5,000. (The exception is whole fruit acai or the powdered fruit which has an impressive 102,700 per 100 grams, but wouldn't you rather spend (and drink) a lot less and enjoy the chocolatey goodness of cocoa powder?)

Consider these herbs and spices that appear high on the USDA's list:

  • cloves 290,283
  • oregano 175,295
  • rosemary 165,280 
  • thyme 157380
  • cinnamon 131,420
  • turmeric 127,068

Now, it's important to remember that the spices are also 100 grams, so it takes a large amount to meet the scores listed above. A teaspoon of cinnamon still rates an impressive score of 7,000 while a teaspoon of oregano is 3,600. Adding herbs and spices to your cooking is a great way to get in your 30,000 points.

It's interesting to note that the cooked version of say, cabbage, is higher than raw cabbage. This is true of tomato sauce vs. raw tomatoes, artichokes, broccoli, and sweet potatoes. It doesn't hold true for carrots or asparagus among others. This is because cooking destroys some nutrients but enhances others.  

Why Get Your Daily ORACs?

Why should we be concerned about going to the trouble of getting a whopping daily 30,000 ORAC points via superfoods? Cancer, diabetes, atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, hypertension, osteoporosis, skin disease, asthma is why. We know that one of the reasons these diseases appear is when the body loses its ability to neutralize free radicals. 

Much of the research into antioxidants was conducted using them in supplement form. The results were mixed, leading some mainstream medical types to conclude that the benefits of antioxidants are a bunch of hype. Nothing could be farther from the truth, however, when researches look at the disease prevention that occurs when people get antioxidants from whole foods. In other words, the world's healthiest populations don't take supplements or drink super berry juice, they eat real food. Food with high antioxidant amounts (or ORAC values.) 

That said, Healthy Girlfriend gives you some practical advice (below) on how to get your 30,000 ORAC points and more per day.

A Really Impressive Superfood Day 

To make this more practical, we've listed the ORAC values per serving, rather than the USDA's calculation for 100 grams.

  • Have this green smoothie and rack up 22,392 ORAC points at breakfast: 1 cup chilled green tea(3,000,) 1/2 cup pomegranate juice (or Concord grape if you prefer. Both clock in at 2,900,) 1 navel orange (1819,) 1 cup blueberries (9,700,) 2 cups of kale (3,540,) 1 banana (795,) 1 tsp ground ginger (500,) 1 T ground flax seed (588.) Drink it slowly and feel very good about yourself! If you're brave, add a teaspoon of spirulina or blue-green algae. Sea vegetables are very nutrient dense, but you'll have to go to a health food store to find them.
  • Add these goodies to your lunch salad. Extra points if you use Romaine, kale, or spinach as your green leafy: 1 cup black beans (15,600 ORAC points but switch it up with lentils, pinto or red beans for similar values,) 1/2 cup artichoke hearts (7,900,) a slice of 7 grain bread (400.) Of course the tomatoes, onions, or any raw veggie you add earns you a shiny, gold star. Now you're up to well over 46,292 for the day. And we haven't even gotten to dinner yet! Have another cup of green tea and celebrate.
  • Add a sweet potato to what you're already having for dinner for an additional 2,400 points. Or, one cup of marinara sauce on your pasta will get you 1,800. Since you've been exceptionally good today, pour yourself a 5 ounce glass of red wine and tally up 5,700 more points. See how easy this is? 

What About My Meat?

If any cave men or women are still reading this article, you can take heart that meat does contain some antioxidants such as vitamin E, glutathione, and minerals such as selenium. Most of this comes from the plants they eat, so animal protein wouldn't be considered a superfood by our definition. But if you Paleos gotta have a little animal protein in your diet, please make sure it is grass-fed, pasture-raised, or wild caught because they will contain more nutrients than conventional meat. And don't forget to plan your meals with veggies or fruits being the main focus. Think of meat as a condiment, like Asians do.

Still, plant foods contain up to 64 times the antioxidant value of meat or dairy (those are mean values.) For example, a serving of fish will get you an ORAC of 7, an egg 2, and milk tops off at 4. Even a Coke gets a score of 4, so really, you're never going to get the kind of numbers we got with our impressive day above. And please don't drink Coke. It's bone-leaching qualities far surpass it's measly antioxidant contents.

Some Caveats with the ORAC System

The USDA stopped publishing their ORAC listing after 2010 mainly because it was being misused by supplement companies looking to boost product sales. Also, when we talk about super foods, it is often misinterpreted that other foods are not as healthy.  Just because apples and onions or flaxseed are lower on the list, it is important to know that these and other plant foods contain other nutrients that are extremely healthy and fight disease as well. Although they are not as high in some antioxidants, whole grains such as brown rice and whole wheat bread have lots of fiber. Likewise, just because a glass of Merlot has an ORAC score of 5,700 doesn't mean it's wise to drink the whole bottle and feed the broccoli to your dog. 

That brings us back to the exotic berry superfood question. To Noni or not to Noni? That's up to you. As we said, the acai fruit truly has impressively high antioxidant levels and no doubt has been of benefit to many, and if you feel better drinking its juice and don't mind the price, go for it. Healthy Girlfriend wants you to remember that antioxidants work like an army of little fighters. One warrior alone won't win the takes a variety of warriors, each with its individual range of skills and special weaponry. We think that eating a broad range of little plant warriors works better than drinking special juices.


photo credits: Fairwaymarket, YLakeland