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Healthy or Hype? The Truth About Exotic Antioxidant Superfoods

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

If filling your diet with antioxidants is a good thing, then loading up is always better, right? Not always. Antioxidants are nutrients or chemicals that provide protection and repair from the cell’s work of using oxygen. In other words, antioxidants are what a can of Rust Oleum is to your outdoor basketball hoop’s pole—it keeps your hoop safe from the rusty crud that can destroy your equipment over time. In your body, antioxidants help clean up the mess made by oxygen by-products, called free-radicals, which contribute to ailments like heart disease, cancer, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, dementia and macular degeneration. Given all that antioxidants can do, it’s tempting to seek out the highest sources to slow down or prevent your body from “going rusty” or becoming diseased.

Blueberries, spinach and beans are just a handful of the foods that have earned deserved king status because of their especially high concentration of antioxidants. But other fruits and vegetables contain a good dose of antioxidants, too. For example, strawberries and citrus (which contain vitamin C), carrots and cantaloupe (containing vitamin A and carotinoids) and tomatoes and watermelon (which contain lycopene) are great foods that can help fight disease. But in our society of excess and over-the-top, food is no exception, and even great sources of antioxidants aren’t enough—people want even more super than super. The best of the best. Consumers are looking beyond the pint of perfectly good blueberries at the local grocery and scouring the internet for rare fruit products like acai berry and mangosteen juice, which claim to be the highest sources of antioxidants.

Shoppers are willing to look to the ends of the earth to find the most obscure fruits that contain (purportedly) extremely high levels of antioxidants. And since most people aren’t able to, say, travel to the floodplains of Central and South America or Mongolia for health food, you might guess importers take advantage by stamping a high price on such exotic antioxidant loot. But are these foods worth the extra trouble and expense? In short, the answer is, not really. Research suggests that the body reaches a daily capacity where too many antioxidants become excessive—and unneeded surplus is excreted in the urine. So filling your day with high-antioxidant fruits and veggies is critical—and definitely worth the time and money—but paying exorbitant prices for exotic fruits and vegetables you have to track down is probably not going to render you free-radical free.

We’ve checked into a few of the popular and obscure antioxidant superfoods that are in the media spotlight, and given you the least you need to know to help you decide whether it’s worth your hard earned cash…or not.

1. Acai Berry
Acai is notable for its content of anthocyanins, the same phytochemicals present in the red-blue family like blueberries or blackberries. In general, all berries are high in antioxidants because of their high skin-to-fruit ratio—but is acai the best of the bunch? The jury is still out. Since acai is primarily available in supplemental or juice form, it’s tricky to know just how much protective power you’re actually getting, because antioxidant capacity depends on the preparation, portion and concentration. In addition, most of the research has been laboratory-tested with few studies on humans, which means it’s hard to make a definitive conclusion on its effects on the body. Seem confusing? Think of it this way: with so little science to back up the claims, why pay about five dollars per serving for a drink that may be doing you little good? Plus, there’s a dark side to this dark-colored fruit: Acai has been the center of scams and tricky marketing, since diet pill hawkers claim that in addition to the touted antioxidant power, there’s controversial dramatic weight loss and digestive health benefits, too.

2. Mangosteen
That old high school knee injury giving you problems now? Don’t spend big bucks (in some cases, 30 dollars for just 32 ounces) on mangosteen juice in the hopes of reducing the inflammation. Mangosteen, a fruit native to Southeast Asia, has been advertised as brimming with xanthones—antioxidants that appear to reduce inflammation in laboratory tests. Read it again: laboratory tests. The shortage of human research means we need more information about how the fruit works in the body before we can go guzzling for health’s sake. Sure, it contains antioxidants, just like other fruits and vegetables, but like many other produce picks, it’s fine to eat or drink if you like it (or have the budget for it), but there’s no proof that it deserves miracle status.

3. Goji Berry
With an ORAC (a measurement of antioxidant capacity) score of 177 per gram, goji berries are indeed loaded with antioxidants. But what has even more antioxidants? It turns out that plain old red delicious apples, granny smith apples, cranberries and blackberries top goji in the antioxidant department. Goji berries can be difficult to find—and expensive, too. On a recent trip to the store, small red delicious apples were priced at about 60 cents per serving. Because the supermarket didn’t carry goji berries, a trip to another store turned up goji berries, all right—but at just over a dollar per serving, they were nearly twice as expensive as the apples. If you want to add variety to your fruits, go ahead and give goji berries a try. But if you’re trying to load up on antioxidants, there’s no need to spend the extra time and money tracking down goji berries when everyday apples will do the trick.

4. Noni
If something tastes terrible, would you eat or drink it to improve your health? Many people would—since it’s often said that with no pain, no gain. But would you eat or drink a food if it wasn’t clear if whether there would be an effect on your health? Chances are, probably not (unless you’re a glutton for punishment). Drinking noni juice makes about as much sense as eating anchovies on your cereal every morning—there’s no proof that it’s beneficial for your health, and it’s disgusting. Like many other exotic superfruits, there’s little research to support the claims of improved health due to antioxidant content, making noni juice another so-called miracle that just can’t live up to its promises. Even worse, drinking noni juice could pose a risk to some, since the high potassium content can be dangerous for people with kidney problems or those taking certain medications. There’s nothing wrong with trying something new or varying your fruits and veggies, aiming for those with deep colored hues indicating high levels of antioxidants—in fact, it’s recommended! But just don’t throw your hopes and your cash at a single fruit or food that has little scientific backup as to whether it can come to your body’s free radical rescue.

Your best bet for protecting your body with antioxidants? Go with what you know: there are plenty of fruit and veggie sources that are readily available and affordable. If you squeeze in a variety of colors from the produce section, eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetable a day, you’ll have a super start to offering your body protection against disease—no exotic superfruits necessary.