When most of us think of foods high in antioxidants, our minds jump right to vitamin C-rich oranges. And while this classic is a great source of antioxidants, so many other fruits and veggies are loaded with these health-boosting compounds.
Here’s the lowdown on why it’s so important to get those antioxidants onto your plate, plus which foods to incorporate.
What are antioxidants?
You probably know that antioxidants are important for your health but might not understand exactly what these microscopic molecules actually do. Essentially, antioxidants are tasked with warding off free radicals, unstable atoms that can lead to cellular damage, which are produced in your body and from the environment in which you live. While it’s totally normal to produce some free radicals naturally in the body, their production is accelerated by a variety of factors, including sun exposure, smoking, and drinking alcohol, according to research published in Pharmacognosy Review.
“When antioxidants fight those free radicals, they destroy them so that they are unable to attach themselves to your cells and cause damage,” explains dietitian Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Plant-Based Eats in Connecticut.
Where do antioxidants come from?
The best way to get your fair share of antioxidants is through a plant-based diet. There’s a whole host of antioxidants found in plant foods out there. “This includes lycopene in foods like watermelon, tomatoes, and strawberries, beta crytophanxin in foods like sweet potatoes and carrots, sulforaphane in foods like broccoli, anthocyanins in blueberries and blackberries, and allicin in onions and garlic,” says Gorin. Compounds known as polyphenols, carotenoids, and flavonoids also act as antioxidants.
Some vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, copper, iodine, and manganese, serve as antioxidants, too, adds The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N. Fun fact: “The hormone melatonin also has antioxidant properties,” she says.
Foods that are LOADED with antioxidants
The best way to consume a healthy variety of antioxidants? To eat fruits and vegetables that “represent the rainbow.” In other words, eat as many different colors as you can. “You’re going to get different antioxidants from different colors,” Gorin explains.
The antioxidant levels in various foods are measured in a unit developed by the National Institute of Health and Aging (NIH). This unit is called ORAC, which stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, but also goes by ORAC value or ORAC score. If you’re looking to up your intake of antioxidants, consider incorporating more of these nutrient-dense foods with high ORAC scores into your diet.
1. Dark chocolate
ORAC score: 20,823
You’re probably excited to see that chocolate tops a list of foods highest in antioxidants. Lucky for those with a sweet tooth, dark chocolate is an excellent source of antioxidants—much more than its milky counterpart. “What makes dark chocolate, and namely cacao, so high on the antioxidant list is its flavonoid content. It specifically contains flavonols, antioxidants only found in cacao and chocolate,” notes Michels.
Also worth noting: Cacao and dark chocolate contain the mineral antioxidants zinc and selenium.
Michels recommends looking for chocolate or cacao sources that are 70 percent or higher. “Enjoy a solo square during daytime hours or add it to smoothies, oatmeal, protein balls, or trail mix,” she says.
ORAC score: 17,490
Of all nuts, the pecan is the highest in antioxidants, offering vitamin A, vitamin E, and zinc. One study published in the journal Nutrition Research found that participants whose daily caloric intake was made up of at least 20 percent pecans had increased blood antioxidant levels, which can lead to decreased oxidative stress and lowered risk of chronic disease.
To incorporate more pecans in your diet, Michels suggests adding a quarter-cup into oatmeal or snack mixes. You can also sprinkle crushed pecans over vegetables or salads, or add them to breadings (think pecan-crusted salmon).
ORAC score: 14,697
Although less popular than most berry varieties, elderberries are one of the highest in antioxidants, including quercetin, kaempferol, and isorhamnetin.
“Elderberry extract is delicious and is always present in my fridge during cold and flu season,” notes Toronto-based naturopathic doctor Olivia Rose, N.D. “It contains potent antioxidants, which not only support immune health but also heart health.”
You can eat elderberries whole, make jelly out of them, or freeze them to use in smoothies or as a yogurt topping.
ORAC score: 13,541
In addition to being rich in omega-3s, walnuts are also an excellent source of antioxidants, including polyphenols, which help regulate blood pressure levels and promote circulation, notes Michels. In fact, one study published in Nutrition Journal linked eating a meal rich in walnuts with lower markers of oxidative stress.
Just like with pecans (or any other nut, for that matter), enjoy a quarter-cup of walnuts as a snack, add them to oatmeal or mix, crush them over savory dishes, or use them to crust proteins.
5. Seedless golden raisins
ORAC score 10,450
Naturally sweet, these chewy dried grapes are very nutritious, offering up a healthy dose of fiber, iron, calcium, and boron, according to Michels. “What makes seedless golden raisins high on the antioxidant list is their levels of polyphenols, specifically catechins, the same compound found in many antioxidant-rich teas,” she says.
While raisins can be a nutritious and delicious snack on their own, they also make a great topping for oatmeal and are delicious in granola, homemade bars and baked goods, on salads, and in yogurt, pudding, rice, or quinoa dishes.
6. Wild blueberries
ORAC score 9,621
Wild blueberries (the tiny ones) pack two times more antioxidants than ordinary blueberries (which have an ORAC score of 4,669). They’re loaded with anthocyanins, which give them their deep purplish color, according to Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. “Research shows that the purple-blue anthocyanins found in wild blueberries protect the cardiovascular system, promoting health blood pressure, as well as improving insulin sensitivity and brain health.”
Unlike regular blueberries, the wild variety is often sold frozen, which makes them even easier to use in everything from smoothies and smoothie bowls, baked goods like banana bread, pancakes, sauces, marinades, and oatmeal.
ORAC score: 9,584
Cranberries are an excellent source of a type of flavonoid called proanthocyanidins (PACs), which are unique to and abundant in them, according to Harris-Pincus. “Research has shown that flavonoids, such as those found in cranberries, give fruits and vegetables most of their antioxidant properties and that a flavonoid-rich diet may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers,” she says. In fact, it’s the PACs in cranberries that make them so famously helpful for urinary tract health.
Just like raisins and blueberries, cranberries make for a great addition to smoothies, cereal, oatmeal, salads, muffins, quick-breads, granola bars, and trail mix. “I love making a cranberry compote out of fresh or frozen whole cranberries to top waffles, pancakes, crepes, and oatmeal and to use as a sandwich spread,” Harris-Pincus notes.
8. Canned tomatoes
ORAC score: 694
While tomatoes don’t have the highest ORAC score out there, Gorin likes to recommend them because they boast the antioxidant lycopene, which helps protect skin from UV damage, among other perks.
“If you eat cooked tomatoes, you might get even more benefit, since research shows that the lycopene in cooked tomatoes is better absorbed by the body,” she says. “One of my favorite ways to eat tomato sauce is in my Protein Punch Marinara Spaghetti Squash recipe.”