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Antioxidants: Why are They Important?

If your summer plans include basking in the sun with a cold one and grilling up some hot dogs, you might want to add a few thousand antioxidants to your diet to help sweep up all those extra free radicals.

What are free radicals? 

Free radicals are highly reactive and unstable molecules produced when your body breaks down food (especially processed meat, alcohol, or foods high in sugar and carbs), or when you’re exposed to environmental stressors (like UV radiation, pollution or smoking). 

These free radicals have a voracious appetite for electrons, stealing them from your body’s cell proteins and membranes in a process called oxidation.

When your body is unable to process or get rid of the free radicals efficiently, it can lead to oxidative stress. This damages DNA and plays a role in aging and numerous diseases, such as cancer and type 2 diabetes.

Free radicals are also implicated in mental health disorders, such as major depression.

How can antioxidants help?

Antioxidants are the free-radical fighters. 

They work by generously giving their own electrons to the ravenous free radicals, and they do this without turning into electron-stealers themselves. Antioxidants also help repair DNA and maintain healthy cells.

The most familiar antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene. But there are many many more. Some of the best sources of antioxidants are plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, herbs and cacao. 

High Antioxidant Botanicals

You can get a healthy dose of antioxidants from numerous fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and herbs. But if you are looking for a powerful punch of antioxidants to throw into a smoothie or make into a tea (or hot chocolate), check out the choices below.

Organic Cacao

Cacao is a highly nutritious superfood that comes from the fruit seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree in Central and South America. 

Cacao has the highest flavonoid content by weight of any other food. Raw organic cacao has more than 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries and more calcium than cow’s milk. 

It’s also the highest plant-based provider of iron. Cacao is also rich in several other minerals, including magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, and copper.

People commonly consume cacao to help with issues such as depression, stress, blood pressure and heart health. Research has shown that cacao can help reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. 

For example, cocoa flavanols have been shown to exert anti-inflammatory action, improve blood flow, and decrease blood pressure and platelet aggregation.

Organic Ceylon Cinnamon

Ceylon cinnamon, or “true” cinnamon, is a small evergreen tree belonging to the family Lauraceae, native to Sri Lanka. 

It is considered to be a superfood and loaded with powerful antioxidants. Traditionally, cinnamon has been used to help with bronchitis and upset stomach. 

Although the inner bark of several other Cinnamomum species is also used to make cinnamon, cinnamon from C. verum is considered by culinarians to be of superior quality.

Reishi Mushroom

Reishi mushroom is a polypore fungus belonging to the genus Ganoderma. Its red-varnished, kidney-shaped cap and peripherally inserted stem gives it a distinct fan-like appearance. 

Reishi mushrooms are chock full of antioxidants and are a powerful immune system booster. Research in cancer patients has found that some of the molecules in Reishi mushrooms can increase the activity of helpful white blood cells known as natural killer cells.

Turmeric

Turmeric is a flowering plant of the ginger family Zingiberaceae. The plant is a perennial, rhizomatous, herbaceous plant native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia and has a long history of use in traditional medicine. 

Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is an efficient scavenger of free radicals. Research has shown that curcumin can benefit inflammation, pain, metabolic syndrome, and help in the management of inflammatory and degenerative eye conditions.

The rhizomes are used fresh or boiled in water and dried, after which they are ground into a deep orange-yellow powder commonly used as a coloring and flavoring agent in many Asian cuisines, especially for curries, as well as for dyeing. 

Turmeric powder has a warm, bitter, black pepper-like flavor and earthy, mustard-like aroma. Turmeric has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. 

Organic Moringa: Packed with nutrients

Moringa oleifera (Moringaceae) is an extremely nutritious plant known for its high levels of antioxidants. Every part of the plant can be eaten: flowers, leaves, pods, seeds, and root. 

People consume moringa to improve heart health, lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation. 

The plant is a distant relative of cruciferous vegetables such as kale, broccoli, and cabbage, and shares the same nutritious compounds. Moringa is packed with nutrients shown to slow down the aging process, reduce stress, promote healthier skin and bone health and lower cholesterol levels. 

According to a University of California, Davis article on the superfood benefits of moringa, Carrie Waterman, a UC Davis natural products chemist says, “If there were a top 10 list of plants that are going to help feed the world over the next hundred years, I would say moringa should be on that list.”

The plant may be able to address both malnutrition and obesity. According to Waterman’s research, mice given a high-fat diet along with concentrated moringa lost weight, improved glucose tolerance and failed to develop fatty liver disease compared with those not fed moringa.

Yerba mate

Yerba mate contains trace amounts of every vitamin and mineral your body requires, as well as seven out of ten essential amino acids. It will also give you an energy boost with its 85 milligrams of caffeine per cup. This is almost double the amount of caffeine found in black tea but less than half that of coffee (100 to more than 200 mg per cup). 

As a bonus, many yerba mate drinkers say it increases alertness and energy like coffee, but it doesn’t have the same jittery effect.

Yerba mate contains an array of beneficial compounds including the following:

  • Caffeoyl derivatives: The main health-boosting antioxidants in yerba mate.
  • Xanthines: Stimulating compounds including caffeine and theobromine, which are also found in tea, coffee and chocolate.
  • Saponins: Bitter compounds with anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering properties.
  • Polyphenols: This is a large group of antioxidants, tied to a reduced risk of many diseases.

 

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