Berries are the top antioxidant-rich fruits. But don't forget peaches, plums, and a little red wine
By Jeanie Lerche Davis
Reviewed By Charlotte E. Grayson, MD
Berries are the crown jewels of summer, the gems that inspire pies, parfaits, cobblers, ice cream treats, and whipped cream wonders. Best of all, berries deliver super-healthy antioxidants that help fight disease. How healthy? A landmark study shows that just one cup of berries provides all the disease-fighting antioxidants you need in a single day. Of course, dietitians will tell you, "Don't stop there." A healthy diet needs a variety of nutrients from many food sources.
Raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries are plentiful in most corners of the U.S. "Berries are available almost year-round now and even though they may be more expensive some times of the year, they're still much more accessible than they used to be," says Cindy Moore, MS, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and director of nutrition therapy at The Cleveland Clinic.
Berries and other foods figured in a major study published in the June 9, 2004, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. This research provides the largest, most comprehensive report thus far of antioxidant content in fruits and vegetables. Berries won, hands down, in providing the most antioxidant bang for the buck.
Antioxidants are important disease-fighting compounds. Scientists believe they help prevent and repair the stress that comes from oxidation, a natural process that occurs during normal cell function. A small percentage of cells becomes damaged during oxidation and turns into free radicals, which can start a chain reaction to harming more cells and possibly disease. Unchecked free radical activity has been linked to cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease.
This newest study used updated technology to assess antioxidant levels in more than 100 foods, including fruits, vegetables, cereals, breads, nuts, and spices.
Cranberries, blueberries, and blackberries ranked highest among the fruits studied. Apples ran a close second, and dried fruits were also leading contenders. Peaches, mangos, and melons, while scoring lower than berries, still contain plenty of antioxidants as well as other nutrients.
However, there's a catch: Even though some fruits and vegetables have a high antioxidant content, the body does not absorb all of it. The concept is called bioavailability, explains researcher Ronald Prior, PhD, a chemist and nutritionist with the USDA's Arkansas Children's Nutrition Center in Little Rock, Ark. He authored the landmark antioxidant study.
"Bioavailability has to do with absorption or metabolism in the gut," Prior explains. "What's absorbed will be impacted by the mechanical structure of different antioxidants in food -- if they're tied up with fiber or if they have sugar molecules attached."
Some foods benefit from a bit of cooking, he says. One of his studies showed that by mildly steaming blueberries, the antioxidant level was enhanced, making more antioxidants available to the body. "We really don't know much about this, especially with fruits," Prior tells WebMD.
That's why variety in your diet is important. You hedge your bets by eating as many antioxidant-rich foods as possible, since researchers don't yet fully understand the complexities involved with bioavailability. It's also why you should shoot for foods that offer the highest antioxidants, such as the top producers like berries, he says.
On the color wheel, the purple-blue-red-orange spectrum is home to the most antioxidant-rich fruits.
Wild blueberries are the winner overall. Just one cup has 13,427 total antioxidants -- vitamins A & C, plus flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) like querticin and anthocyanidin. That's about 10 times the USDA's recommendation, in just one cup! Cultivated blueberries have 9,019 per cup and are equally vitamin-rich. Buying tip: Peak season starts in mid-May, so blueberries are less expensive during the summer.
Cranberries are the tart crown jewels of turkey feasts. They're also antioxidant powerhouses (8,983). To get cranberries after the holiday scene has passed, creative cooks sneak dried cranberries into risottos, salads, salsas, and trail mixes.
Blackberries (7,701), raspberries (6,058), strawberries (5,938), black plums (4,873), sweet cherries (4,873), and red grapes (2,016) are also brimming with vitamins A & C and flavonoids like catechin, epicatechin, quercetin, and anthocyanidin. Tossed into a green salad, these berries add extra color, flavor, and texture. They're also very edible by the handful, with morning cereal, mixed into yogurt, spooned over waffles or pancakes, and sprinkled over ice cream.