Printer Friendly Email a Friend PDF RSS Feed

Dynamic Chiropractic – April 21, 2003, Vol. 21, Issue 09

ORAC Intake, Health Outcomes and Common Diseases of Aging

By John Maher, DC, DCBCN, BCIM
If these findings are borne out in further research, young and middle-aged people may be able to reduce risk of diseases of aging - including senility - simply by adding high-ORAC foods to their diets.
- Floyd P. Horn, administrator at the Agricultural Research Service Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston

Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) is a test-tube analysis that measures the total antioxidant power (the ability to neutralize oxygen-free-radicals) of foods and other chemical substances. Therefore, ORAC testing is a way to measure how many oxygen radicals a specific food can absorb. The more oxygen radicals a food can absorb, the higher its ORAC score.

Foods that score high in an antioxidant analysis may protect cells and their components from oxidative damage, suggest the latest studies of animals and human blood at the ARS Human Nutrition Research Center. (ARS is the chief scientific agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) In other words, the higher a food's ORAC score, the better it is at helping our bodies fight diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Oxygen radicals are chemicals formed inside our bodies by the process of oxidation; they are normal byproducts of digestion, physical activity and other everyday functions. We ingest oxidized or partially rancid foods, and are exposed daily to polluted air, and/or oxidizing radiation from the sun and various electrical appliances.

Free radicals are bad for our health in many ways. A good example of harm caused by oxidation is rust. When metal rusts, it becomes weak and flaky; it starts to degenerate or decay, until it no longer performs its functions well. Eventually, the metal "fatigues" and "fails." This same process happens in our bodies! The cells, organs and other parts of our body can be made weak by oxidation, leading to cancer; heart disease; cataracts and macular degeneration; osteoarthritis; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); senile dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases; and perhaps even skin aging and wrinkling!

The "free radical theory of aging," which holds that oxidative damage culminates in many of the abovementioned maladies of aging, is now well-accepted in the health community. Therefore, if our bodies can quench these oxygen radicals before they do damage, they won't hurt us. Chemicals that neutralize oxidation from free radicals are called antioxidants. The antioxidant evidence has spurred skyrocketing sales of antioxidant vitamins. However, several large trials have had mixed results on vitamin pills as far as achieving the desired benefits. This may be because there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of antioxidant phytonutrients (plant chemical nutrients) in natural plant foods and herbs. Some of these phytonutrients have been identified, yet many more remain unidentified. What we do know is that most of these powerfully beneficial plant compounds are not found in vitamin pills. Therefore, it is not surprising that nutritional science has found that those who eat 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day suffer a much lower incidence of common, chronic degenerative diseases of aging compared to those who consume only two or three servings a day.

By the year 2050, nearly one-third of the U.S. population is expected to be over age 65. If further research supports these early findings, millions of aging people may be able to guard against many of the worst and most common diseases, simply by adding high-ORAC foods to their diets! This could prevent much suffering, and reduce the staggering cost of treating and caring for the elderly.

Dr. Guohua Cao, a physician and chemist, developed the ORAC test while he was a visiting scientist at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, Md. According to Dr. Cao, "The ORAC value covers all the antioxidants in foods. You cannot easily measure each antioxidant separately, but you can use the ORAC assay to identify which phyto-nutrients are the important antioxidants. It may be that combinations of nutrients found in foods have greater protective effects than each nutrient taken alone."

More natural plant chemicals are being discovered every day. We don't know as yet which ones, in what amounts, best fight cancer and other diseases - but we do know that it is best to get these plant chemicals from plant foods, not just supplements, to fully enjoy the disease-fighting benefits.

We do know some of the best plant foods, however. Dark greens and brightly colored plant foods have the highest ORAC scores: think strawberries; spinach; kale; cauliflower; blueberries; wild tart cherries; prunes; tomatoes; carrots; and the like.

It is important to understand that the ORAC values of fruits and vegetables cover a broad range. Dr. Coa instructs us that, "you can pick seven with low values and get only about 1,300 ORAC units. Or, you can eat seven with high values and reach 6,000 ORAC units or more. One cup of blueberries alone supplies 3,200 ORAC units." Generally, the minimum recommended "five-a-day" vegetable-and-fruit program is considered to supply about 1,750 ORAC units daily.

In the studies, eating plenty of high-ORAC foods raised the antioxidant power of human blood 10 percent to 25 percent. Based on the evidence so far, some experts suggest that daily intake be increased to approximately 5,000 ORAC units to have a significant impact on plasma and tissue antioxidant capacity.

The best way to do this is to eat 8-10 servings of mostly dark greens and brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Of course, this may be difficult for many of us to accomplish on a daily basis. Therefore, specially prepared "super" food powder mixes of fruit and vegetable juice, and related phytonutrient extracts, can be a convenient second-best alternative. Pick a super-food powder mix that tastes good, so the whole family can enjoy it regularly, and make sure each serving supplies 3,500 (preferably much more) ORAC units.

John Maher, DC, ABAAHP
Encinitas, California

Click here for previous articles by John Maher, DC, DCBCN, BCIM.

Join the conversation
Comments are encouraged, but you must follow our User Agreement
Keep it civil and stay on topic. No profanity, vulgar, racist or hateful comments or personal attacks. Anyone who chooses to exercise poor judgement will be blocked. By posting your comment, you agree to allow MPA Media the right to republish your name and comment in additional MPA Media publications without any notification or payment.

To report inappropriate ads, click here.