Antioxidants and the Growth of a Scam
If you live on planet Earth you’ve heard of antioxidants. They can be found in just about everything you eat in varying quantities and have become the selling point in acai and other similarly scammy products. It’s not that the antioxidants themselves are a scam. It’s that some of the highest concentrations of them can be found in everyday foods that don’t come from a goat farmer’s backyard in Nepal or some poor native village from the Amazon. The scam is in the marketing of antioxidants as something exotic and mystical; they aren’t.
The Nation Cancer Institute (cancer.gov) explains antioxidants in an unconfused way.
“Antioxidants are substances that may protect cells from the damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals. Free radical damage may lead to cancer. Antioxidants interact with and stabilize free radicals and may prevent some of the damage free radicals might otherwise cause. Examples of antioxidants include beta-carotene, lycopene, vitamins C, E, and A, and other substances.”
Antioxidants are in just about everything (except maybe a Big Mac) – oranges, carrots, peas, beans, leaves of every variety and even meats. They’re everywhere, and different kinds help prevent different cancers and conditions. The big catch with antioxidants is that not all foods hold them in the same quantities. You might be surprised when I tell you that oregano and cinnamon have more antioxidant power than all that acai and goji berry stuff you see advertised as miracle foods in your google side bar. Here is a quote from a 2000 paper entitled The Effects of Plant Flavonoids on Mammilian Cells: Implications for Inflammation, Heart Disease, and Cancer. It’s from the Chebeague Island Institute of Natural Product Research:
“Flavonoids are nearly ubiquitous in plants and are recognized as the pigments responsible for the colors of leaves, especially in autumn. They are rich in seeds, citrus fruits, olive oil, tea, and red wine.”
Flavonoids are known for their antioxidant activity (antioxidant is a generic term referring to a multitude of vitamins and chemicals that all act to repair DNA damage). Like I said before, there is no mystery behind their abundance. Our own bodies produce antioxidants to control free radical damage (which is basically the process of aging). The problem is that our bodies do not do a perfect job. Thus, eating a diet rich in anti-oxidants is recommended. You may ask, “How do scientists measure antioxidant value?” They use a measure called Oxygen Radical Absorbency Capacity (ORAC). The higher the ORAC value the more antioxidants are in that food. Here’s a list, from WebMD.com of some of the highest ORAC value foods:
|Top 20 Food Sources of Antioxidants|
|Rank||Food item||Serving size||Total antioxidant capacity per serving size|
|1||Small Red Bean (dried)||Half cup||13727|
|2||Wild blueberry||1 cup||13427|
|3||Red kidney bean (dried)||Half cup||13259|
|4||Pinto bean||Half cup||11864|
|5||Blueberry (cultivated)||1 cup||9019|
|6||Cranberry||1 cup (whole)||8983|
|7||Artichoke (cooked)||1 cup (hearts)||7904|
|9||Dried Prune||Half cup||7291|
|12||Red Delicious apple||One||5900|
|13||Granny Smith apple||One||5381|
|15||Sweet cherry||1 cup||4873|
|17||Russet potato (cooked)||One||4649|
|18||Black bean (dried)||Half cup||4181|
The Lure of Exoticism:
If you lived in China you wouldn’t each Chinese food; you’d just eat food. If you lived in Thailand you’d probably practice Buddhism not Christianity. And, you wouldn’t be considered exotic in any way. We live in a shrinking world so it’s confusing to me why people still find things and ideas from across the globe as somehow more valuable than those found right in our back yards. Health products are just one example of this phenomenon. Goji berries for instance are really nothing more than wolfberries. The health food scammers changed the name to make them sound more exotic. The truth is that they’re quite common through India and China. The kicker is that the Chinese have never used them as an important part of their medicinal practice. Don’t you think if there was this miracle plant sitting right in their backyard that they would have figured it out sometime in the last 5 thousand years?
The Acai Business is Starving Native Populations:
Before stupid Oprah got on the band wagon of acai it was still a niche market. Then she opened her mouth about it and everybody wanted some. But, acai is a staple crop in parts of the Amazon, and there isn’t enough now to feed the natives who rely on it. It’s being harvested and shipped to the US instead. Again, if it was a miracle plant don’t you think the people who eat it in mass quantities every day would be living to 300 years old or something? They aren’t. They’re just a bunch of native people trying to get by on a crop which happens to be available nearby. It might be exotic to get health foods from far and wide but there is hardly anything mystical or miraculous about it. It’s nothing but greed.
Tea Doesn’t Grow Here:
Tea does not grow in the US (except one plantation in South Carolina). But, it does grow all over the world and in huge quantities. It’s been recognized for thousands of years as a healthful beverage, and there is real scientific research into its chemical compounds. Tea is an example of something that seems exotic, but actually has real science behind it. It is an established crop like corn or rice. It has real benefits that have been measured. If you want to find out about tea then you can. If you want to find out about acai you’ll just get page after page of miraculous scam blogs and web pages. It is not a sustainable crop in the quantities in which it’s being imported. My suggestion is to wait for the science and to wait for proper and sustainable harvesting methods to catch up to demand. In the mean time, let the natives have their crop back.
Notice that some of the highest ORAC values from the above chart are also some of the most common ingredients in your kitchen? I looked high and low for reliable numbers for acai berries and goji berries, but the fact is that none of the internet sources I found are even remotely believable. In fact, type acai into google and you’re going to find millions of results that have absolutely no credible science attached to it. Oprah touted it once, it got popular and people went stupid about it. That’s what happens with anything related to health. Fools are a dime a dozen. I’d like to believe there is a miracle plant somewhere in the world, but there just isn’t. Notice that every few years there’s something else en vogue? That should tell you something right there. Be smart with your health, keep up on recent research and live judiciously. That’s how to make it through life. Not by latching onto fads.