One of the main antioxidant food benefits is helping prevent or delay certain types of cell damage, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In lab experiments, antioxidants counteract oxidative stress caused by free radicals, aka highly unstable molecules that are created when you exercise, digest food or are exposed to environmental factors like sunlight, air pollution and cigarette smoke.
Antioxidants are compounds that may help delay or even prevent cell damage in the body. When a person consumes them in large amounts, antioxidants may help defend the body against oxidative stress from potentially harmful free radicals, which are unstable atoms.
Antioxidants are important because they help stabilize cells and protect them from oxidative stress, which can lead to things like cancer, heart disease, and eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, noted a study published in December 2016 in the Journal of Nutritional Science. Per an earlier article published in the journal Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, scientists have theorized that antioxidants help promote longevity based on the free radical theory of aging. But more recent research, such as a study published in February 2014 in Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, suggests the true root of aging is much more complex.
Choosing the best food sources of antioxidants can go a long way in enhancing your health and fighting disease. A class of compounds found in a wide range of foods (especially plant-derived foods), antioxidants help protect against the damaging effects of free radicals.
It’s thought that increasing your intake of the best food sources of antioxidants can help fend off a host of major health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and some forms of cancer. Some examples of antioxidants are phytochemicals and flavonoids.
What Are Antioxidants?
The body’s trillion or so cells face formidable threats, from lack of food to infection with a virus. Another constant threat comes from chemicals called free radicals. In very high levels, they are capable of damaging cells and genetic material. The body generates free radicals as the inevitable byproducts of turning food into energy. Free radicals are also formed after exercising or exposure to cigarette smoke, air pollution, and sunlight. 
Free radicals come in many shapes, sizes, and chemical configurations. What they all share is a voracious appetite for electrons, stealing them from any nearby substances that will yield them. This electron theft can radically alter the “loser’s” structure or function. Free radical damage can change the instructions coded in a strand of DNA. It can make a circulating low-density lipoprotein (LDL, sometimes called bad cholesterol) molecule more likely to get trapped in an artery wall. Or it can alter a cell’s membrane, changing the flow of what enters the cell and what leaves it. An excessive chronic amount of free radicals in the body causes a condition called oxidative stress, which may damage cells and lead to chronic diseases. 
We aren’t defenseless against free radicals. The body, long used to this relentless attack, makes many molecules that quench free radicals as surely as water douses fire. We also extract free-radical fighters from food. These defenders are labeled “antioxidants.” They work by generously giving electrons to free radicals without turning into electron-scavenging substances themselves. They are also involved in mechanisms that repair DNA and maintain the health of cells.
There are hundreds, probably thousands, of different substances that can act as antioxidants. The most familiar ones are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and other related carotenoids, along with the minerals selenium and manganese. They’re joined by glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols, phytoestrogens, and many more. Most are naturally occurring, and their presence in food is likely to prevent oxidation or to serve as a natural defense against the local environment.
But using the term “antioxidant” to refer to substances is misleading. It is really a chemical property, namely, the ability to act as an electron donor. Some substances that act as antioxidants in one situation may be pro-oxidants—electron grabbers—in a different situation. Another big misconception is that antioxidants are interchangeable. They aren’t. Each one has unique chemical behaviors and biological properties. They almost certainly evolved as parts of elaborate networks, with each different substance (or family of substances) playing slightly different roles. This means that no single substance can do the work of the whole crowd.
Health Benefits Of Antioxidants
Antioxidants came to public attention in the 1990s, when scientists began to understand that free radical damage was involved in the early stages of artery-clogging atherosclerosis. It was also linked to cancer, vision loss, and a host of other chronic conditions. Some studies showed that people with low intakes of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables were at greater risk for developing these chronic conditions than were people who ate plenty of those foods. Clinical trials began testing the impact of single substances in supplement form, especially beta-carotene and vitamin E, as weapons against chronic diseases.
Even before the results of these trials were in, the media and the supplement and food industries began to hype the benefits of “antioxidants.” Frozen berries, green tea, and other foods labeled as being rich in antioxidants began popping up in stores. Supplement makers touted the disease-fighting properties of all sorts of antioxidants.
The research results were mixed, but most did not find the hoped-for benefits. Most research teams reported that vitamin E and other antioxidant supplements didn’t protect against heart disease or cancer.  One study even showed that taking beta-carotene supplements actually increased the chances of developing lung cancer in smokers. On the other hand, some trials reported benefits; for example, after 18 years of follow-up, the Physicians’ Health Study found that taking beta-carotene supplements was associated with a modest reduction in the rate of cognitive decline. 
These mostly disappointing results haven’t stopped food companies and supplement sellers from banking on antioxidants. Antioxidants are still added to breakfast cereals, sports bars, energy drinks, and other processed foods, and they are promoted as additives that can prevent heart disease, cancer, cataracts, memory loss, and other conditions.
Often the claims have stretched and distorted the data: While it’s true that the package of antioxidants, minerals, fiber, and other substances found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains helps prevent a variety of chronic diseases, it is unlikely that high doses of antioxidant supplements can accomplish the same feat
Top Antioxidant Foods
Lucky for chocolate lovers, dark chocolate is nutritious. It has more cocoa than regular chocolate, as well as more minerals and antioxidants.
Based on the FRAP analysis, dark chocolate has up to 15 mmol of antioxidants per 3.5 ounces (100 grams). This is even more than blueberries and raspberries, which contain up to 9.2 and 2.3 mmol of antioxidants in the same serving size, respectively (3Trusted Source).
Moreover, the antioxidants in cocoa and dark chocolate have been linked to impressive health benefits such as less inflammation and reduced risk factors for heart disease.
For example, a review of 10 studies looked at the link between cocoa intake and blood pressure in both healthy people and those with high blood pressure.
Consuming cocoa-rich products like dark chocolate reduced systolic blood pressure (the upper value) by an average of 4.5 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure (the lower value) by an average of 2.5 mmHg (4Trusted Source).
Another study found that dark chocolate may reduce the risk of heart disease by raising blood antioxidant levels, raising levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and preventing “bad” LDL cholesterol from becoming oxidized (5Trusted Source).
Oxidized LDL cholesterol is harmful because it promotes inflammation in the blood vessels, which can lead to an increased risk of heart disease (6Trusted Source).
Blueberries are rich in nutrients while also being low in calories. A 2017 studyTrusted Source showed that wild blueberries contain a large number of antioxidants.
Studies on blueberries have shown that these fruits have beneficial effects as a result of their antioxidant content. For example, the authors of a review of animal studiesTrusted Source concluded that antioxidants in blueberries might have medicinal uses for neurological conditions, including those that relate to aging.
A 2016 review examined the anthocyanins that occur naturally in blueberries and other plant materials. Anthocyanins belong to a group of chemicals that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. They are responsible for many of the bright colors of fruits and vegetables.
The review found that anthocyanins may help prevent high levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad, cholesterol, as well as lowering the risk of heart disease and decreasing a person’s blood pressure.
Like other dark, leafy vegetables, broccoli is a nutritional powerhouse. Broccoli is rich in phenolics, a type of chemical produced by plants to help protect them against oxidative stress, according to a study published in March 2015 in the journal Preventive Nutrition and Food Science. Phenolics are important for human health, too. Because these compounds are high in both antioxidants and anti-cancer properties, they may protect against disease, inflammation, and allergies, noted a study published in October 2014 in the International Journal of Chemical Engineering and Applications.
Another one of the foods with high antioxidants are pecans, which are also a good source of healthy fats and minerals. Due to their high level of antioxidants, pecans can help to raise blood antioxidant levels and lower bad cholesterol. Although pecans are a fantastic source of healthy fats, they are also high in calories. Therefore, it is important to eat pecans in moderation to avoid the consumption of too many calories.
Small Red Beans
Although the researchers measured the antioxidants in dry beans, you’ll still get plenty once they’re cooked. Red beans contain polyphenols, plant substances with potent antioxidant properties, per a 2017 study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
In particular, red beans contain anthocyanins, per a November 2015 report from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Anthocyanins are a type of flavonoid, a family of polyphenols. These powerful antioxidants are responsible for the red, purple and blue colors in fruits and vegetables, per an August 2017 study in Food & Nutrition Research.
Both raw and cooked beans contain predominant quantities of polyphenols — and cooking beans at high temperatures does not change the polyphenol content, per the study. Try them in these protein-packed canned bean recipes.
Strawberries are among the most popular berries on the planet. They are sweet, versatile and a rich source of vitamin C and antioxidants (13).
Based on a FRAP analysis, strawberries provide up to 5.4 mmol of antioxidants per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (3Trusted Source).
Moreover, strawberries contain a type of antioxidant called anthocyanins, which give them their red color. Strawberries that have a higher anthocyanin content tend to be brighter red (14Trusted Source).
Research has shown that anthocyanins may help reduce the risk of heart disease by reducing levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and raising “good” HDL cholesterol (15Trusted Source, 16Trusted Source).
A review of 10 studies found that taking an anthocyanin supplement significantly reduced LDL cholesterol among people who had either heart disease or high LDL levels (17Trusted Source).
Artichokes provide lots of nutrients and antioxidants. Research suggests that they may help lower people’s cholesterol levels and improve their gut health.
One studyTrusted Source looking at the medicinal use of artichokes over time noted that artichoke consumption can be good for gut, liver, and heart health.
Another studyTrusted Source showed that chemicals in artichokes had an antioxidant effect on LDL cholesterol in laboratory tests. Therefore, regularly consuming artichokes may contribute to lowering a person’s risk of cardiovascular diseases and other related conditions.
How people prepare artichokes makes a difference to their antioxidant levels. One studyTrusted Source compared boiling, frying, and steaming to see how each affected the antioxidant levels.
The results showed that steaming increased the effectiveness of the antioxidants by 15 times while boiling increased it eightfold. Researchers believe the reason for this is that boiling and steaming break down the cell walls, making the antioxidants more accessible.
Rich in fiber, protein, and unsaturated fats, nuts make a great snack food. But if you had to dub one nut the healthiest (at least in terms of how much bang you get for your buck, nutrition-wise), it would be the walnut. Used in traditional Chinese medicine for brain health (walnuts have an uncanny resemblance to the human brain), walnuts help keep brain cells healthy and may play a role in improving memory, according to a study published in June 2016 in the journal Natural Product Communications.
Like all raw, unsalted nuts, walnuts are heart-healthy thanks to their polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, notes Harvard Health Publishing. A review published in December 2017 in Nutrients cites research that even suggests eating this Mediterranean diet staple in moderation may help you blast belly fat, thereby reducing your risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
But what makes walnuts really shine is their high polyphenol content. These compounds work with antioxidants to prevent oxidative stress, and may help with inflammation, weight control, and the prevention of diseases such as cancer, noted a study published in November 2017 in the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.
Red cabbage is yet another one of the foods with high antioxidants, and it has been shown to contain more than 4 times the amount of antioxidants of regular cooked cabbage! Just like strawberries, the red color comes from the high content of anthocyanins. Red cabbage has other nutritional value as well since it is rich in vitamin C, K, and A. Vitamin C functions as an antioxidant in the body and can help strengthen your immune system.
Now you know some of the top foods with high antioxidants, you can plan your meals accordingly for a healthy lifestyle! At Mac’s Pharmacy, we are dedicated to improving your health and well-being. Learn more about how we can assist you with all of your pharmaceutical needs!
Red Kidney Beans
Like their cousin small red beans, red kidney beans are rich in polyphenol antioxidants. In particular, they are an excellent source of anthocyanins, per an October 2016 study in the Journal of Functional Foods.
Flavonoids appear to be able to affect cell signaling and have been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-thrombogenic (prevent blood clots), anti-diabetes, anti-cancer and neuroprotective activities in vitro and in animal models, per the Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center.
Although the USDA researchers measured the antioxidant capacity of dried kidney beans, you’ll still get plenty of antioxidants and other health perks from cooked kidney beans: A 1/2 cup of cooked red kidney beans contains 18 percent of the DV of manganese (which also has antioxidant properties), 7.7 grams of protein and 6.5 grams of heart-healthy fiber.
Raspberries are soft, tart berries that are often used in desserts. They are a great source of dietary fiber, vitamin C, manganese and antioxidants (28).
Based on a FRAP analysis, raspberries have up to 4 mmol of antioxidants per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (3Trusted Source).
Several studies have linked the antioxidants and other components in raspberries to lower risks of cancer and heart disease.
One test-tube study found that the antioxidants and other components in raspberries killed 90% of stomach, colon and breast cancer cells in the sample (29Trusted Source).
A review of five studies concluded that the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of black raspberries may slow down and suppress the effects of a variety of cancers (30Trusted Source).
Moreover, the antioxidants in raspberries, especially anthocyanins, may reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. This may reduce the risk of heart disease (31Trusted Source, 32Trusted Source, 33Trusted Source).
That said, most of the evidence for the health benefits of raspberries is from test-tube studies. More research in humans is needed before recommendations can be made.
Purple Or Red Grapes
Purple and red grape varieties contain vitamin C, selenium, and antioxidants.
Two of the antioxidants that occur in grapes, namely anthocyaninTrusted Source and proanthocyanin, may help protect a person from heart disease or cancer.
However, there is a need for additional research to show the exact effects that eating grapes has on heart health and cancer risk.
Potatoes get a bad rap because they’re high in carbs, but these tuberous vegetables are actually chock-full of vitamins and minerals. (And sorry: While delicious, potato spinoffs — we’re looking at you, potato chips and french fries — don’t count.) To reap the health benefits, aim for more colorful spuds, like sweet potatoes or purple potatoes; just like any other fruit and veggie as noted earlier, a more colorful potato means a higher concentration of antioxidants. Studies, like one published in April 2016 in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, have shown the antioxidants in potatoes may help lower blood pressure, the risk of heart disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases.
The USDA lists cranberries as one of the top fruits high in antioxidants, with just slightly less antioxidant capacity than traditional blueberries. Cranberries contain a variety of polyphenols, including the flavonoids anthocyanin and catechin, per a May 2018 study in the International Journal of Food Properties.
A catechin is a type of antioxidant also found in green tea, and it’s currently being studied in the prevention and treatment of cancer, per the NIH.
One cup of raw cranberries also contains 17 percent of the DV for vitamin C and 10 percent of the DV for vitamin E. Try them in these year-round cranberry recipes.
Beans are a diverse group of legumes that are inexpensive and healthy. They are also incredibly high in fiber, which can help keep your bowel movements regular.
Beans are also one of the best vegetable sources of antioxidants. A FRAP analysis found that green broad beans contain up to 2 mmol of antioxidants per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (3Trusted Source).
In addition, some beans such as pinto beans contain a particular antioxidant called kaempferol. This antioxidant has been linked to impressive health benefits, such as reduced chronic inflammation and suppressed cancer growth (41Trusted Source, 42Trusted Source).
For example, several animal studies have found that kaempferol may suppress the growth of cancers in the breast, bladder, kidneys and lungs (43Trusted Source, 44Trusted Source, 45Trusted Source, 46Trusted Source).
However, because most of the research supporting the benefits of kaempferol has been in animals or test tubes, more human-based studies are needed.
Spinach is a green, leafy vegetable full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It is low in calories, making it an excellent choice as an addition to salads and entrees.
Zeaxanthin and lutein are two of the antioxidants in spinach that may promote eye health. They help prevent damage from ultraviolet (UV) rays and other harmful light waves.
A review of studiesTrusted Source on lutein and zeaxanthin noted that lots of studies have investigated their role in age-related macular degeneration. The authors also suggested how people could get more of these antioxidants in their diets, naming dark leafy greens, eggs, and pistachios as sources.
Cherries are high in flavonoids that can help protect against oxidative stress, inflammation and endothelial dysfunction (a type of non-obstructive coronary artery disease), all of which can play a role in cardiovascular diseases, per a February 2020 review in the journal Foods.
This sweet fruit also contains melatonin. Although melatonin is most commonly known as a sleep hormone, it has powerful antioxidant properties with anti-inflammatory effects, per an April 2019 study in Cell Death & Disease.
One cup of sweet cherries also contains 10 percent of the DV for vitamin C.
Beets are vegetables that contain antioxidants belonging to a class of pigments called betalains. Betalains may help prevent colon cancer and digestive issues.
Beets are also a source of dietary fiber, iron, folate, and potassium. These substances may help with suppressing inflammation.
One reviewTrusted Source noted that betalains show promise for reducing free radicals and helping prevent cancer. However, research has not yet determined the effectiveness of eating beets for these benefits.
Black plum peel extract contains nine phenolic compounds, 23 percent of which are anthocyanins, per a September 2019 study in Food Hydrocolloids.
One plum also contains 7 percent of the DV for vitamin C. Fresh plums can be a good antioxidant-rich alternative to prunes (dried plums) if you want to be especially mindful of your sugar intake. Because dried fruit is much smaller than fresh fruit due to its lack of water, it’s easy to load up on calories when eating it — especially because manufacturers often add sugar to dried fruit.
Several orange vegetables contain vitamin A and other nutrients. These vegetables contain large amounts of phytochemicals that can help with heart disease and cancer prevention. Some examples of orange vegetables with high antioxidant levels include:
- sweet potatoes
- acorn squash
- butternut squash
There is limited evidence to suggest how best to serve orange vegetables. Often, people cook them, but a person can eat some varieties, such as carrots, raw as a snack or part of a salad.