Saint Louis University

BLOG: Antioxidants Decoded

Author: Kelly Houston
Published: Friday, January 25, 2013

During my oncology rotation at an outpatient radiation facility, the first client-RD interaction I observed was an initial nutritional consultation for a patient with bladder cancer. My preceptor was discussing the patient’s typical eating patterns, along with foods she likes and dislikes to eat. The patient had heard many things about nutrition relating to cancer, so she was dealing with much confusion. “I like to put garlic on almost everything… is that OK?” she asked. “That’s great!” exclaimed my preceptor, who then immediately turned to the filing cabinet where she kept her patient handouts. She produced a sheet listing the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity – basically, how strong the antioxidant property is) values of different spices compared to foods. “Garlic has antioxidants and antioxidants can help protect against cancer recurrence.”

At the top of the list was cinnamon, with a whopping ORAC value of 6,956 micromoles per teaspoon – more antioxidant capacity than an 8 oz glass of pomegranate juice or ½ cup of blueberries. I was completely astonished! Why does no one talk about how beneficial spices can be when it comes to antioxidants?

It seems like “antioxidant” is a buzz word nowadays. It is virtually impossible to walk down a “health food” aisle at a grocery store and not see products advertise their antioxidant properties. Despite their acceptance in the mainstream culture, I realized that I did not technically know what an antioxidant is. I discovered that an antioxidant is a type of phytochemical. Phytochemicals are non-nutritive (calorie-free), non-essential (you can live without them) plant-based chemicals that have some type of protective effects.

Fruits and vegetables are great sources of antioxidants. Many people (may pretend not to) know that consuming five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day is part of a healthy diet, but they may not know why it is important for a variety of these foods to be consumed each day. The reasoning behind a dietitian emphasizing variety is due to the different phytochemicals present in fruits and vegetables of different colors. That’s right, by eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, you are consuming a variety of phytochemicals which have different beneficial effects.

For example, anthocyanins found in acai and blueberries and are shown to have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and cardio protective effects. Vitamin A, which is found in orange and dark green fruits and vegetables (think carrots, pumpkin, and spinach), helps cells to divide correctly, which can inhibit cancer cells from forming and dividing. Allium compounds found in garlic, onions, and leeks can also impede tumor growth. Rosemary can delay free-radical formation in red meat, so it’s beneficial to pair with beef.

Studies have shown that how we get antioxidants is important. Vitamins A and E, and selenium correlate to a decreased incidence of cancer, but some studies have shown that when these are consumed via supplementation, risk or severity of cancer can increase. This emphasizes what we as (future) dietitians promote: get your nutrients from foods!

This post covered just of a few antioxidants out there. Remember, to up your antioxidant intake, eat a rainbow of five or more fruit and vegetable servings a day and add plenty of spices (not salt) to your next meal. Here are a few suggestions to get you started, or experiment with your own spice blend at home!

Cinnamon-Spiced Moroccan Chicken
Makes 4 servings | Prep Time: 10 minutes | Cook Time: 15 minutes

  • 2 tablespoons flour, divided
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons Cinnamon, Ground
  • 1/2 teaspoon Cumin, Ground
  • 1/2 teaspoon Ginger, Ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon Red Pepper, Ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
  • 4 small boneless skinless chicken thighs (1 1/4 pounds)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup pitted whole dates, sliced
  • 1/4 cup toasted sliced almonds
  1. Mix 1 tablespoon of the flour, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, ground red pepper and sea salt in shallow dish. Coat both sides of chicken with spice mixture.
  2. Heat oil in large skillet on medium heat. Add chicken; cook 3 minutes per side or until golden brown.
  3. Mix remaining 1 tablespoon flour and broth; add to skillet. Bring to boil. Stir in dates and almonds. Reduce heat to low; simmer, covered, 7 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through. Serve over couscous or brown rice.

Thyme and Cinnamon Poached Pears
Makes 4 servings | Prep Time: 10 minutes | Cook Time: 45 minutes

  • 4 ripe firm pears, such as Bosc, Bartlett or Anjou
  • 1 cup pear nectar
  • 1 cup water
  • 3/4 cup maple syrup
  • 2 Cinnamon Sticks, slightly crushed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Thyme Leaves
  • 4 strips lemon peel
  1. Peel and core pears from the bottom, leaving stems intact. Cut a thin slice off the bottom of each pear to provide a flat, even bottom. Set aside.
  2. Mix remaining ingredients in large saucepan. Bring to boil. Place pears in liquid in saucepan, standing pears with stems pointing up. Reduce heat to low; simmer, covered, 20 to 30 minutes or until pears are tender. Remove pears from saucepan.
  3. Cook liquid 15 minutes longer or until reduced to about 3/4 cup. Serve pears drizzled with sauce.

Test Kitchen Tip: Use a melon baller to core pears by pushing the smaller end of melon baller into the bottom of the pear, then turn it to bore a hole and scoop out the seeds and fibrous core. This will leave the stem intact.


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