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You Ask, I Answer: ORAC Scores

AcaiOracI often see a lot of nutrition articles that reference a fruit’s ORAC score, which shows how many antioxidants it has.

I’ve been reading your blog for a few years and I can’t remember you ever mentioning it.  How come?

– Marie Boceank
(Location Withheld)

ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) is one of those nutrition “buzzwords” that elicits an unenthused shrug and “meh” from me.

The assay, developed in the mid 1990s at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center, does not give an indication of how many antioxidants a food has, but rather how efficiently a food can destroy free radicals (compounds that can speed up the aging process as well as development of certain diseases).

The implication — by those not familiar with nutrition science — is that the higher a food’s ORAC score, the healthier it is.

While there is no unhealthy food with a high ORAC score (after all, the list is dominated by berries, nuts, seeds, legumes, and vegetables), the ORAC-obsessed viewpoint is misguided, for the following reasons:

  • A food’s ORAC score is affected by a multitude of factors: growing conditions, how it is consumed, how soon after harvesting it is consumed, how it is stored, etc.
  • ORAC is simply one way to rank foods.  Remember — a different food will always emerge as “the healthiest” depending on what parameters you are looking at.  For example, rank foods by their quercetin content, and you’ll get apples, red onions, and celery as the champs.  Make potassium the benchmark, and then you’ve got avocados, potatoes, lentils, and bananas towards the top.
  • There are many other health-promoting compounds in foods (such as phytonutrients and flavonoids) that, by virtue of not being antioxidants, are left out of the ORAC equation.  Lignans in flax and avocado, for example, have tremendous heart-health benefits.  Alas, lignan content is a moot point when it comes to ORAC.

The USDA recommends a daily intake of 3,000 – 5,000 ORAC units per day.  As if consumers need more figures to keep track of!  The bottom line, as always, is that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains offers a plethora of healthful qualities (including the recommended amounts of daily ORAC units).

I’ve often come across articles in mainstream health magazines that will refer to ORAC as the definitive way to choose healthy foods (in the same way that, a few years ago, the glycemic index was touted as “the way” to determine what is healthy and what isn’t).  While gimmicky and eye-catching, that kind of thinking is ultimately reductionist and inaccurate.

The less processed your diet, the less you have to worry about seeking out ORAC scores, fiber, and other healthful components.  A whole-foods diet pretty much takes care of itself.

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2 Comments

  1. Vincci said on June 28th, 2010

    I think it’s also important to note that in studies publishing lists of ORAC scores, the authors themselves often note that a food’s ORAC score is not necessarily reflective of their antioxidant capacity in the body. For example, similar to how oxalates block the absorption of iron in spinach, we don’t know whether other compounds can block the absorption of the antioxidative compounds in the foods, or how everything interacts.

  2. Andy Bellatti said on June 28th, 2010

    Vincci,

    Exactly! Unfortunately, a lot of magazine articles (as well as manufacturers of dried berry products) will defer to ORAC as a golden standard. The researchers who have come up with ORAC have always been forthcoming and realistic; unfortunately, most people are more likely to read about ORAC in “Men’s Health”.

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