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The Antioxidant Debate
New Hope Functional Ingredients
by Joysa Winter
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Debate continues over merit of ORAC value

Camu-camu and acerola have joined the more commonly mentioned players such as cranberry and açai among the list of frequently-mentioned antioxidants. Meanwhile, suppliers continue to debate whether quoting the ORAC values of these ingredients still makes scientific or marketing sense.

The Medicine Hunter weighs in

Asking a guy like Medicine Hunter Chris Kilham to pick his favorite new antioxidant is a little bit like asking a sun tanner to pick her favorite ray of the sun. Impossible. But here's what he had to say, at about the rate of an X-15 rocket engine:

“I like yerba mate, and guayusa, sold by Runa—they have some very cool sustainability operations down [in the Amazon].” - Chris Kilham, Funtional Ingredients

Read more about Guayusa, or click here to order Runa - Amazonian Guayusa online.

“I like Yerba Mate, and Guayusa, sold by Runa—they have some very cool sustainability operations down [in the Amazon]. One of the great North American superfruits is black currant. Its concentration of anthocyanins and its ORAC value are off the charts. Its very nutritious from that standpoint, and it tastes delicious.”

“I'm a big fan of Maqui Berry in Chile, from the Patagonia region. It's a tremendous purple berry harvested wild, with blood sugar-regulating properties. Schisandra (Magnolia Vine) really stands out for its mental benefits. Its sold as a juice in a network marketing company, and in supplements, encapsulated, which works very well since it requires very little material to derive its benefits. A few companies like Solarae and Nature's Way sell it. But it has never been a major seller, and I don't think it has yet seen its day in the spotlight.”

“Oh, and I also love Seabuckthorn. It's widely used by athletes, with all kinds of benefits—it just hasn't had a long-term advocate.”

Just what kinds of antioxidants are finished product manufacturers looking for today?

Like many things in life, it depends whom you ask. But ingredients companies are reporting continued interest in mainstays like Acai and cranberry. They also are noting a few new players on the scene, such as Camu-camu and Acerola.

Family-owned Ecuadorian Rainforest has been in the antioxidants ingredients business since it was founded in 1997. The New Jersey-based company sells more than 300 ingredients, with about 90 percent of their clients based in the US.

In the company's early years, clients tended to call looking for a specific ingredient—açai, kale, broccoli. Nowadays though, formulators tend to be looking for an ingredient with condition-specific applications.

"One of our growing areas of interest is sports nutrition," Siegel said. "Formulators are looking for ways to make their sports products healthier and move beyond the basic sports nutrition ingredients like whey. Antioxidants are a natural fit. Consumers are willing to pay more for a premium beverage if it has natural health benefit, and once you have penetrated the sports market, that message translates over to the everyday consumer."

Of the company's hundreds of ingredients, dozens of them register as "high" in antioxidant value. Five years ago, its biggest sellers were blueberry, cranberry and artichoke. Today, top sellers include maqui berry, camu-camu, acerola and açai.

Five years ago, clients were also more likely to ask about an ingredient's ORAC value. Today, that is less true.

"We did a marketing campaign a few years ago called 'Fresh' where we promoted what were the highest ORAC-value ingredients at the time," Siegel said. "Now, when I look at that list, I laugh. They seem kind of puny because things have come out since then that are much higher. Even just two years ago, maqui berry came out and it has something like 300,000 ORAC units. Now, I've heard there's a Canadian blueberry, which we don't carry, that has something like 700,000 ORAC units.

"I must say, though, that I have not really seen any ORAC values printed on any product labels anywhere. I think it is more of a buzz word with manufacturers than with consumers, and overall, there is less interest in it."

Alexander Schauss, PhD, FACN, a senior research director at food industry consultancy AIBMR Life Sciences Inc, takes issue with how some companies are using ORAC values (he was not referring to Ecuadorian Rainforest).

"As a food scientist, it is frustrating to see false claims promoted at trade shows and on ingredient supplier websites," Schauss said. "For example, the maqui berry is a good source of anthocyanins. Only a few in vitro studies have been carried out on the berry. However, some ingredient suppliers claim it has twice the antioxidant capacity of the açai palm fruit, and many more times that of blueberries, pomegranate, or cranberries.

"Unfortunately, the claim made is false. Scientific publications and the USDA food antioxidant database show that açai pulp is four times higher in antioxidant capacity than maqui berry."

Recent actions by regulatory bodies like the European Union's Food Safety Authority come as no surprise to Schauss. In February, EFSA rejected a majority of the proposed health claims submitted on antioxidants.

"Untruthful and misleading claims are not only wrong, but they attract regulatory attention and give the nutraceutical and functional foods industry a bad name," Schauss said. "For this reason, regulators are taking a hard look at the evidence to support claims and where it appears in the public domain."

Antioxidants pack more punch, new tests confirm

The ORAC peroxyl test has long been the industry standard for antioxidant potency, but there’s a new generation of ORAC testing that will shift the focus to new ingredients. Here are the new big guns in antioxidant firepower.

“Eat your fruits and vegetables.”

If you think it’s just good ol’ Mom pushing that mantra, you are a step behind the times.

In June, the USDA revised its famous food pyramid, and the new graphic—a plate instead of a triangle—calls for nearly 50 percent of a person’s daily diet to be fruits and vegetables.

The national debt may be $14.6 trillion, but the government can afford an entire website to push this point, at aptly named fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov. Here, you can learn exactly how many fruits and veggies you need, based on your age and activity level. The adult average clocks in at 4.5 cups per day.

Nutritional insiders know that fruits and vegetables bring an array of benefits: vitamins, minerals and fiber. But the big buzzword then and now is antioxidants—those magical little compounds found in brightly colored plants that seem to be Mother Nature’s gift to the planet.

“In the plant kingdom, there are some 20,000 antioxidant compounds we know of that protect their own cells from heat, air, moisture and time,” explains Chris Kilham, an ethnobotanist and founder of Medicine Hunter Inc. “They fall into different categories like flavanoids, phenols, anthocyanins and carotenoids. Many of them are biologically active in the human body as well—often in remarkably small amounts.”

The food industry’s benchmark of a substance’s antioxidant properties has been the oxygen radical absorption capacity (ORAC) test, a method of measuring antioxidant capacities in vitro. But comparing ORAC values can be tricky: Some tests compare ORAC units per gram of dry weight, while others might test wet weight or by serving. Then there are other challenges.

ORAC: The Next Generation

Today, testing for a compound’s ORAC value is commonplace. Brunswick Labs of Massachusetts has been offering its patented ORAC assay for more than a decade. For the simple $275 test, companies have literally put their products on the map.

“People have built entire branding campaigns with ORAC,” Bell said. “This kind of messaging has been worth millions of dollars a year.

Now the question in 2011 is: What comes next? While scientists have garnered strong suggestive evidence of antioxidants’ ability to quench one specific free-radical source (peroxyl), ORAC testing does not measure the other sources of free radicals in the body.

Brunswick Labs’ answer to this question came out earlier this year when it extended its ORAC patent to include a new array of testing it calls ORAC5.0. This “total ORAC suite” tests five primary reactive oxygen species: peroxyl, hydroxyl, peroxynitrite, superoxide anion and singlet oxygen.

Such testing, Bell concedes, is subject to the same limitations of the traditional ORAC test—it is an analytical test conducted in a test tube. But the test essentially gives evidence of a substance’s antioxidant potential against five primary radicals, rather than just one.

This opens up powerful messaging opportunities for antioxidant sources that have been slighted in the conventional one-radical test.

“Take the example of oranges,” Bell says. “The traditional ORAC test shortchanges all fruits and vegetables rich in carotenoids, because they don’t perform particularly well against peroxyl. But they perform really well against a radical called singlet oxygen. This is like measuring an athlete against strength but not on agility.”

In ORAC5.0 lab results provided by Brunswick Labs, looking at how a fruit or vegetable scores in all five categories changes the antioxidant profile of the food—again, at least in the test tube. As an example, the fruit with the highest value in the five tested categories is blackberry, which has an aggregate ORAC5.0 value of 490 per gram. But if you look only at its simple ORAC value of 51 per gram, blackberry ranks well below blueberry (at 68) and plum (at 76).

“The values across different radicals are not proportional,” Bell explains. “A ‘10’ in the peroxyl (ORAC test) is not the same as a ‘10’ in the hydroxyl (HORAC) test. But where things get interesting is in the variation around an average for a given radical test. For a given product, you can see how the contribution to total varies. For example, for oranges, the contribution from SOAC (singlet oxygen) is 67 percent compared to 23 percent average for all fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, blueberries demonstrate strong balance across the radical spectrum.”

“The flavanols in cocoa are better than statin drugs for lowering cholesterol.” - Chris Kilham, Funtional Ingredients

Read more about Cocao

Medicine Hunter Chris Kilham agrees that tests like ORAC5.0 are helpful, in that they add to the knowledge of the whole nutritional field. “If we can say we have two, three, four different measures of how a compound might be working, that’s cool!” he said. It is also important, however, not to rush to too many conclusions.

“ORAC measures have value overall, of how anti-oxidant something is, but as far as I have been able to determine, the antioxidant activity of these compounds is not the big ‘wow.’ It’s not where our attention should necessarily be.

“Lycopene is just an okay antioxidant but it is really good for the prostate. Lutein is just an okay antioxidant, but it’s great for the eyes. It may help prevent macular degeneration. The flavanols in Cocao are better than statin drugs for lowering cholesterol. There are many other biological markers beyond antioxidant capacity that really matter in the long run.”

October 2011