Antioxidant values in food misleading: Study

ORAC over-rated

Marketers making claims armed with ORAC values might want to tread lightly, according to a new study at the University of Massachusetts Department of Food Science — at least with complex foods.

Simple assays including the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) and DPPH (2, 2'-diphenyl-l-picrylhydrazyl) were designed to measure an individual antioxidant's free radical scavenging capacity. Increasingly, food manufacturers are including the results of these tests on labels, implying that because of the presence of antioxidant compounds, foods themselves have higher antioxidant capacity.

"Realistically, all the method [ORAC] does is measure the chemical property of a single food component," said study author Eric Decker, PhD, professor at the Department of Food Science, UMass. "But how that chemical property relates to the nutritional or behavior aspect of the food is totally unknown. You would have to do detailed studies of each particular compound and correlate all the studies to see if the antioxidant compounds actually have the touted benefits when in a food."

"ORAC and other measurements clearly only affect the individual ingredient being tested," said James S. Tonkin, principal at HealthyBrandBuilders, a brand marketing and development firm in Scottsdale, Calif. "They do not, however, test how a food or product will react in the human body, or whether it will maintain antioxidant protocols when ingested."

"The ORAC could be deceptive because you could include an ingredient with an extremely high ORAC value, such as vitamin C, to raise the antioxidant value," Decker said. "Putting this in a dietary supplement could imply that the product has sufficient levels of botanical extracts to have a high antioxidant value when really the small levels of vitamin C are giving it the high ORAC value."

Retailers should be aware of the discrepancy between ORAC values and a food's antioxidant capacity and educate customers, but stay clear of the debate and the potential hype surrounding ORAC and other antioxidant measures in food and supplements.

"The antioxidant issue is one that I believe has been fervently overblown in the minds and pocketbooks of manufacturers, growers, marketers, associations and others trying their best to find another 'health' angle to sell fruits, vegetables, and other foods that claim antioxidant values," Tonkin said. "Retailers should do what they do best: Put products on the shelves and leave the marketing to the manufacturers, growers, marketers, associations and others, and avoid the liability of making false claims."

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