Although scientists didn't realize their significance until relatively recently, antioxidants are now thought to be important dietary nutrients. So, what are antioxidants, exactly? They're substances in food which prevent damage to your body's cells and tissues caused by free radicals. It's important to keep free radicals in check, as they may contribute to aging, cancer and chronic diseases such as heart disease and Parkinson's disease.
Certain vitamins, such as A, C, and E have antioxidant properties, as do bioflavonoids – free radical-fighting chemicals naturally present in certain plants. In general, fruits and vegetables are great sources of these substances. There are various methods of calculating the antioxidant value of foods, one of which is the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) assay, used by the USDA. Health officials currently recommend consuming about 3,000 to 5,000 ORAC units per day.
Bland food lovers, beware! When measured by weight, spices are the richest source of antioxidants. The type of spice with the greatest antioxidant capacity is cloves, with an exceptional ORAC value of almost 300,000 units. (Note, however, that ORAC value is calculated per 100 grams – please don't try to eat 100 grams of cloves just for the antioxidants!) Other especially antioxidant-rich spices include oregano, rosemary, turmeric, thyme, cinnamon, sage and vanilla.
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