ORAC Values, Antioxidants & Aging

We are all concerned with aging and how it affects our well being and longevity. I have written about ORAC values in past articles, and I want to address this topic again as it pertains to aging. ORAC refers to Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, which is the ability of the body to absorb the negative metabolic breakdown of products as well as toxins and ultraviolet light (sunshine). These breakdowns produce free radicals. The way our body neutralizes free radicals is with antioxidants. And the way this can be measured is with ORAC units. Fortunately, antioxidants are available to us in the food we eat and in supplements. 

The basic metabolic work of your body is to produce enough glucose for you to survive every minute and maintain your heart rate, body temperature, and mental status. Glucose is your body’s only fuel, and the work of metabolism is carried on by little particles in your cells called mitochondria. This process generates free radicals in our body.

When these free radicals break down products from normal metabolism and possible toxic exposure, they attack your body’s cells and break down the DNA. As you know, DNA is responsible for replication or reproducing of cells. If it is broken down (mutations), it can make normal cells turn to cancer cells. Therefore, it is logical that we want to have more antioxidants available to deter this. If we eat foods that have higher ORAC values so that the free radicals can be neutralized, we can prevent cancer and other diseases of deterioration. This has a very practical application to us on a daily basis because you are in control of what you eat, what you take as a supplement, and what you apply to your skin for protection from damaging sun exposure. If you go online and research the ORAC values of foods that you eat every day, you will learn that you need 3,000-5,000 units per day depending on your size, age, and the amount that you eat. 

If you eat a high meat diet plus items like French fries and processed wheat products but include few fruits and vegetables, you will have fewer ORAC units available to fight cellular damage. To put this on a practical level, the BRCA-1 and -2 as well as the PAL-2 genes create enzymes necessary to prevent cancerous changes in your breast cells. If these cells are mutated, the enzymes are not produced and breast cancer may result. Some people have these mutations, while others do not. In order to maintain a healthy status, we need nutrient foods, the basic 32 vitamins and minerals (some of which are antioxidants), and phytochemicals, which are simple natural chemicals in food that nurtures your cells. 

Let’s take a microscopic look at skin exposed to ultraviolet A or B and see how these light waves are able to affect collagen and DNA and thus our aging. Since skin “turnover” and healing are always going on in the dermal and epidermal cells, these cells are constantly generating free radicals from sun exposure. The free radicals released are responsible for the effects of sunburn such as redness, pain, swelling, and peeling “dead” skin. Skin cancer from DNA breakdown is also caused in this manner. However, if fruits, vegetable, and ORAC intakes are optimum, then the incidence of sunburn damage and skin cancer is lower. 

One spice that has been used in cultures around the world is ginger (root), which actually has been analyzed and shown to have 400 different antioxidant chemicals as part of its makeup. One tablespoon of ground ginger has about 4500 ORAC units, comparable to some other high-value plants such as sorghum bran, sumac grain, parsley, acai berries, chocolate, and turmeric.

In earlier centuries, spices were obtained from the Orient for pleasure and health. Cloves, cinnamon, oregano, tumeric, and curry mixtures were plentiful. From Ceylon (Sri Lanka now) came black and green teas, which have very high antiaging properties and ORAC values. After Columbus discovered the New World, a very special drink considered the “Food of the Gods” was created from the cocoa bean, and chocolate became a desirable food and drink all over Europe. The ORAC value in tea and chocolate, in addition to coffee from South America, is excellent and these are considered essential items in our diet today. 

Foods such as broccoli, spinach, parsley, acai berry, blueberry, kiwi, cherries, prunes, grapes, and many others contain high levels of antioxidants and are healthy. However, processed grain-derived food products do not have good ORAC values. Starchy foods such as corn, potatoes, and bananas are not unhealthy, but tend to contain high counts of calories. This can cause weight gain and obesity leading to diabetes or other disease conditions. 

The next question is about how to prepare foods so that their nutrient elements will not be destroyed. Cooking methods have different effects on the nutrients of each prepared food item. A good example would be the lycopene contained in tomatoes. Lycopene is an antioxidant abundant in each tomato and its skin. When eaten raw, the tomato gives ample vitamins including antioxidants. When cooked as a sauce, lycopene is “released” and this powerful anti-cancer nutrient becomes metabolically available. This means that both cooked and raw have both similar and different antioxidant properties.

As an aside, meats contain nutrients including vitamin C and other plant-based oxidants, depending upon the food the animal has ingested. Grain- and hay-fed beef has low nutrient value in its meat, whereas grass-fed beef is full of nutrients. Farmed salmon is fed on grain, so its meat is less nutrient-rich and lacking omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin A components, whereas wild salmon is rich in these nutrients. Cooking meat or fish, especially on the grill, actually destroys much of its nutrient value. Boiled vegetables are not as nutritious because the nutrients are released out into the liquid and usually discarded and replaced with a sauce. 

Cooking with low heat actually preserves a food’s nutrients. Stewing meats with vegetables at a low temperature or steaming vegetables preserves their nutrients and flavor. Microwave cooking is OK for reheating foods, but its very high cooking temperature can destroy nutrients. Raw fruits and vegetables maintain their nutrient levels, but some foods may not be as digestible unless cooked, especially cruciferous vegetables. Another way to preserve the high nutrient value of food is to “juice,” which breaks up the fiber as cooking would have done and makes the nutrients more accessible to the body.

In summary, always consider the nutrient and antioxidant levels of the foods that you are eating, eat few empty calories, prepare your foods in such a way that preserves their nutrient and ORAC values, and limit high-calorie foods and snacks. If you follow this, you can free yourself of having to weigh yourself constantly and also improve your health, well being, and add to your longevity. 

Dr. Carraway is the director of the Plastic & Cosmetic Surgery Center of EVMS.  Call 757-557-0300 for more information.

James H. Carraway, M.D.

Dr. James Carraway is a full-time academic and practicing clinical plastic surgeon.  He is Director of the Cosmetic & Plastic Surgery Center of EVMS, is board certified in surgery and plastic surgery, and is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.  Dr. Carraway has been teaching and practicing for 30+ years and has been director and chairman of residency training programs and fellowship programs in plastic surgery.
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