There was a dog food ad that ran years ago based on the jingle, “My dog’s better than your dog. My dog’s better than yours. My dog’s better ’cause he eats Kennel Rations. My dog’s better than yours” (There, I’ve just dated myself.) And no, this newsletter is not about dog food. It’s about antioxidants.
Well, just do a minor paraphrasing, and you’ve got a jingle that would match the hottest advertising pitch in nutrition today. “My antioxidant is better than your antioxidant. My antioxidant is better than yours. My antioxidant is better ’cause it has a much higher ORAC score. My antioxidant is better than yours.”
Over the past two weeks, the staff at the Foundation has been literally overwhelmed by people asking for my opinion of the claims made by various companies selling antioxidants on the net and through MLM companies — in particular, mangosteen. The purpose of this newsletter is not to pick on mangosteen (which I happen to like), but to cut through the noise and nonsense.
What is ORAC?
ORAC is a standardized test adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to measure the “total antioxidant potency” of foods and nutritional supplements. It provides a precise way (with certain key limitations) of establishing the free radical destroying power of a particular food or supplement. Currently, all testing for ORAC values is done by Brunswick Laboratories under a grant from the USDA. The ORAC unit has become an accepted industry standard for measuring antioxidants. The ORAC antioxidant test combines a measure of both the time an antioxidant takes to react and also its antioxidant capacity in a given test tube sample. In most cases, it is expressed as per 100 grams of sample. (This will become very significant a little later in our discussion.)
Sounds simple: the higher the ORAC value, the more potent the antioxidant. Unfortunately, the reality is more complex.
What ORAC Numbers Don’t Tell You
Even if we assume that the tested ORAC figures are accurate, it is important to understand that having a high ORAC value in and of itself does not confer any particular advantage.
- Not all antioxidants that are confirmed as present in a test tube can be absorbed and utilized by the human body. It doesn’t matter how high the value is in a test tube, if it doesn’t work in the body, it has no value to you.
- In addition, different antioxidants target different free radicals. Having an ORAC value of 17,000 that targets one group of free radicals leaves you vulnerable to the ones not targeted.
- And keep in mind that different antioxidants work in different areas of the body. Gingko biloba, for example, works in the brain and cardiovascular system, whereas curcumin likes the colon, and silymarin the liver. Again, having 5,000 ORAC units working in the brain isn’t much consolation if you’re dying of liver cancer.
- ORAC value tells only a very small part of the story. Saying that pycnogenol is 20 times more powerful than vitamin C, for example, is meaningless when it comes to scurvy. In that regard, vitamin C is infinitely more powerful than pycnogenol. Or to say that mangosteen is 10 times stronger than noni (one of the inaccurate claims that we’ve seen a number of times in the past couple of weeks) is also meaningless. When it comes to raising nitric oxide levels, noni is infinitely stronger. Mangosteen doesn’t do that. On the other hand, mangosteen appears to have much stronger antipathogenic activity than noni. Bottom line: ORAC value by itself presents a very incomplete picture.
- And finally, there is a limit as to how much you can benefit from an increased intake of antioxidants. The maximum number of ORAC units the body seems to be able to handle in a given day is about 3,000 to 5,000 units. This is because the antioxidant capacity of the blood is tightly regulated, and there is an upper limit to the benefit that can be derived from antioxidants. Taking in 25,000 ORAC units at one time (as reputedly occurs with mangosteen if you were to believe what you read on some websites) would be no more beneficial than taking in a fifth of that amount. The excess is simply excreted by the kidneys.
Let me rephrase that to make it even clearer. Taking more than 3-5 thousand ORAC units a day of the same antioxidant is a bit like using a tank to go to the grocery store. It’s overkill. And promoting those super high numbers in advertising is a bit like a car dealer trying to convince you to buy that tank for your grocery shopping in the first place. It’s less than honest.
Comparing Apples to Apples
Now let’s go back to the issue I mentioned above of ORAC values normally being calculated on the basis of 100 gram portions — the reason being that ORAC was originally developed to give data on whole foods, and 100 grams works out to just under a 4 ounce portion. That means….
- When it comes to liquid supplements such as mangosteen, 100 grams equals 3.57 ounces. That means it’s essential that you make sure the comparison cited for ORAC values is based on equivalent volumes (or servings). When sellers of mangosteen claim ORAC values far superior to other antioxidants, are they comparing serving to serving? Probably not. In fact, the indications are that they have extended the numbers out to give the ORAC values in a liter of mangosteen juice and then compared that to one ounce servings of other liquid antioxidant supplements. To get the true value per real one ounce serving, you would have to divide by 34, which takes you down to the 500-600 ORAC units per serving. Don’t get me wrong. I like mangosteen and included it in my Private Reserve superfood. I just don’t think it’s useful to exaggerate the numbers. And besides, as we discussed above, there are no health benefits to numbers over 3,000-5,000 ORAC per serving of a single antioxidant anyway.
- And when it comes to capsules, most capsules are 500 milligrams, which means it would take 56 capsules to equal a one-ounce serving of a food based source of the antioxidants. In other words, it would take over 200 capsules to give you the same volume as a 4 ounce serving of the same antioxidant rich whole food. That means the ORAC values in that capsule need to be better than 200 times more concentrated than the whole food to even give you an equivalent value, which indeed can be done since you are removing the water and fiber which have no ORAC value. Grape skin extract, for example, will have a much higher ORAC value than the actual whole grape skins (again because of the water and fiber), but this does not mean that from a cost, dose and/or serving size standpoint grape skin extract is necessarily superior. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act clearly states that all advertising and marketing should be “truthful” and “not misleading.” But keep in mind, there is the convenience factor. Isn’t it worth paying a premium just to be able to easily supplement with a full spectrum antioxidant that makes up for the fact that you aren’t including all necessary beneficial foods in your daily diet?
So where does that leave us? Actually, this isn’t rocket science. Once you cut through the nonsense and outrageous claims, it’s very simple. You will never find a complete antioxidant in a single food, and you will probably never have enough variety in your diet on a regular basis to cover all of your antioxidant needs. Ninety-nine percent of all people will need to supplement. Make sure that when you do:
- It is a full-spectrum antioxidant formulation that covers the entire body and the whole gamut of free radicals.
- It uses only natural isolates — no synthetics.
- It offers as complete a complex as you can get even when using isolates.
- It takes advantage of the synergistic effect that a number of the antioxidants share with each other, such as:
- Zeaxanthin and lutein reinforce each other.
- Curcumin and green tea reinforce each other.
Bottom line: A good antioxidant formula should play a key role in your health supplement regimen. Find a formula you like and use it daily