Spices: A New Kind of Vitamin?

For Shangri-La dieters who randomly spice their food, the current issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (July 2006) has very good news. Spices are a better source of antioxidants than any other food group, according to a survey of popular American foods.

There are many reasons to think antioxidants are beneficial. Oxidative damage, which antioxidants reduce or prevent, seems to play a role in many major diseases, including heart disease. Yet large trials in which people were given a few antioxidants, such as alpha-tocopherol and beta-carotene, did not find health benefits. Maybe the reason for these failures is that you need a suite of antioxidants; maybe antioxidants, “which cooperate in an integrated manner in plant cells [to reduce oxidative damage], also cooperate in animal cells,” the authors write. “A network of antioxidants with different chemical properties may be needed for proper protection against oxidative damage.” A very plausible idea.

To test this idea, it would help to know the antioxidant content of everyday foods. This is what the researchers tried to find out. They used a chemical assay to measure the total antioxidant content of 1113 popular American foods, chosen based on a careful national survey.

Here are the top ten foods by antioxidant content (per gram): cloves, oregano, ginger, cinnamon, tumeric, walnuts, basil, mustard, curry powder, pecans. Here are the next ten: baking chocolate, parsley, molasses, pepper, artichokes, dark chocolate, blackberries, whole-grain cereal, cranberries, chocolate pudding mix. Chocolate is also high in antioxidants — more good news. Red wine was #30. (White wine was low.)

Lowest on the list were animal products. “In general, plant and plant products in the diet have a much higher antioxidant content than do animal products,” the authors wrote. Oils, such as canola oil and olive oil, were higher than animal products, but less than other plant products. Cooking (heating) increased the antioxidant activity of plant foods such as carrots, tomatoes, and spinach.

The end of the paper describes evidence that higher intake of antioxidants is associated with lower risks of stomach cancer and lung cancer.

Could vitamins plus fiber plus spices provide most of the health benefits of fruits and vegetables? It is entirely possible. If so, it would be a major nutritional advance. Spices would be a new kind of vitamin. Good nutrition would include at least one heavily-spiced meal per day.

Berkeley Public Library Watch:The Shangri-La Diet, 3 holds on 5 copies. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, 128 holds on 29 copies. Website Watch: Distinct hosts served at sethroberts.net, latest 24-hour period: 832. One month ago: 539. Distinct hosts served is close to the number of different visitors.

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