Here are the ingredients to grab for fighting free radicals, according to two registered dietitians.

By Betty Gold
September 08, 2020
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Ever purchased a food or beverage labeled “antioxidant-rich” without really knowing what that term means? You’re not alone. (Here’s looking at you, $12 acaí bowl.)

According to the Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health, antioxidants only became well-known (and highly sought-after) by the general population in the 1990s. This was when researchers started to understand that the early stages of artery-clogging atherosclerosis, cancer, vision loss, and a host of other chronic conditions were closely correlated with free radical damage and oxidative stress—aka the very things that antioxidants help to prevent.

What Are Antioxidants, Exactly?

To understand antioxidants, it helps to know a bit about free radicals. “Free radicals are molecules that are broken down through normal metabolism and exposure to chemicals like tobacco or radiation,” explains Rachel Berman, RD and general manager of Verywell. “They can do harm to your body—think causing inflammation and increasing your risk of disease. Antioxidants are vitamins and other nutrients found in plant-based foods (like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains) that prevent or slow damage to cells in your body caused by these free radicals.”

Keep in mind that antioxidants aren’t substances themselves—rather, the term “antioxidant” refers to a chemical property exhibited by hundreds of different (and non-interchangeable) substances. Many of these we’re highly familiar with, like vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and beta-carotene. Others are less familiar: polyphenols, flavonoids, lipoic acid, glutathione, and so on. Most antioxidants occur naturally; they exist in foods to inhibit oxidation and protect against toxins in the local environment.

“It’s important to consume a variety of foods for better health, but antioxidant-rich foods will help protect your cells against damage from free radicals and may help reduce your risk for cancer, heart disease, and other conditions,” says Berman. So if you’re looking to up your antioxidant intake, you’re in good shape—and luckily, there are plenty of delicious ingredients options for you to choose from. Here are the top antioxidant-rich foods, according to registered dietitians. (FYI, none mention any pricey matcha-goji-turmeric-tonic wellness bowls).

Antioxidant Foods

Kidney beans (and other beans) are rich sources of antioxidants. “The antioxidant anthocyanin is present in the skin of kidney beans, giving it its red coloring,” explains Berman. Anthocyanins have been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

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Believe it or not, artichoke hearts are one of the most antioxidant-rich vegetables, full of polyphenols like chlorogenic acid (also found in coffee) which may help the body better metabolize glucose and blood lipids.

Strawberries and raspberries are all a good source of the antioxidant ellagic acid,” Berman says. “Research shows ellagic acid can make cancer-causing molecules inactive and prevent tumors from growing.” Berries—including blueberries and blackberries—also contain the antioxidants resveratrol and anthocyanin, both of which help prevent free radical damage to your cells.

Jennifer Causey

Pecans are rich in the antioxidant vitamin E and have been shown to help lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the body, improving heart health. Pecans are also high in monounsaturated fat and contain a decent amount of fiber, making them one of the healthiest nuts you can eat.

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Spices are incredible sources of antioxidants—not to mention they deliver incredible flavor,” says Leah Silberman, RD. She recommends topping air-popped popcorn with sea salt, rosemary, and thyme. “This snack is a great way to get both fiber and antioxidants in one bowl.” While cinnamon adds a delicious flavor, it also contains potent polyphenol antioxidants for an extra health boost.

John Lawton

According to Silberman, pumpkin seeds are a great source of protein, fiber, and antioxidants like vitamin E and carotenoids. “I like taking individual pouches with me when I'm on-the-go for a nutrient-packed, filling snack.” If you prefer to go the snack bar route, look for CORE Bars, which contain antioxidant-rich ingredients like chia seeds, cherries, and dark chocolate.

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Apples, particularly the skin, are great sources of phytochemicals, including quercetin that has been studied to reduce risk of inflammation in the body,” explains Berman. For the ultimate antioxidant-rich snack, Silberman says to try sliced apples topped with peanut butter, chia seeds, and cinnamon. “All of these foods deliver a unique nutrient profile with antioxidants and combined make for a delicious, satisfying snack.”