Tonight's top 20

Every weeknight, David Letterman has fun with a humorous Top
10 list. But now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has topped
Dave’s Top 10 by presenting a Top 20 list. And while it may not
be as funny as the Late Night list, it provides a surprisingly helpful
guide for picking out some of the healthiest foods the next time
you look over your grocer’s fresh produce. (I say “surprisingly”
because these are the same folks that brought us that famous
pyramid that was built on refined flour.)

Measuring up

Last month, a team of USDA nutritionists published a study in the
Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. The title: “Lipophilic
and hydrophilic antioxidant capacities of common foods in the
United States.”

Snappy title. But perhaps a more descriptive title would be “Top
20 antioxidant-rich foods.”

The USDA nutritionists examined more than 100 different kinds of
fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, cereals and other foods. Using an
analysis method called the oxygen radical absorbance capacity
(ORAC), they were able to detect the lipid soluble (lipophilic) and
water soluble (hydrophilic) antioxidant capacities of the food

They also singled out certain foods to test the impact from two
different processing methods: cooking and peeling.

Starting at the bottom

The results weren’t altogether surprising: Fruits, vegetables and
beans claimed nearly all the spots in the Top 20. We’ll start with
the lower ten, counting backwards, “Late Night” style:

20. Gala apples
19. Plums
18. Black beans (dried)
17. Russet potatoes (cooked)
16. Black plums
15. Sweet cherries
14. Pecans
13. Granny Smith apples
12. Red delicious apples
11. Strawberries

If there’s a surprise here, it’s that strawberries – known for their
high antioxidant content – just missed the top ten.

Cream of the crop

When I began reading the USDA study, I tried to guess the number
one antioxidant food before looking at the list. I guessed
“blueberries,” and I was close, but not quite on the money. Here’s
the Top 10:

10. Raspberries
9. Prunes
8. Blackberries
7. Artichokes (cooked)
6. Cranberries
5. Blueberries (cultivated)
4. Pinto beans
3. Red kidney beans
2. Blueberries (wild)
And the number one antioxidant-rich food:
1. Small red beans (dried)

Small red beans! Who knew? The small red bean looks like a
kidney bean – same color and shape – except that it’s (you guessed
it) smaller. It’s sometimes identified as a Mexican red bean, but
it’s grown only in Washington, Idaho, and Alberta, Canada.

To cook, or not to cook

The USDA list is very useful, but it’s important to remember that
the best way to get your antioxidants is not to eat heaping bowls of
dried small red beans each day, but rather to eat a wide variety of
antioxidant-rich foods. That way you’ll also get other useful
nutrients, such as ellagitannin; a substance that has been shown to
help prevent the growth of cancerous cells and is found in
raspberries and strawberries. And when you eat pecans you’ll add
copper and potassium to your diet. Pinto and kidney beans are
good sources of folate (sometimes called vitamin B-9), which may
help lower homocysteine levels. And blueberries deliver a
chemical called anthocyanis that has been shown to help protect
brain cells.

As you might imagine, most antioxidant foods lose some of their
antioxidant capacities in processing. (The most notable exception
is the tomato; the antioxidant lycopene is enhanced by cooking.)
Ronald L. Prior (one of the study co-authors) told HealthDayNews
that “fresh” is the unsurprising best choice over frozen, cooked or
otherwise processed. So while blueberry pie may seem like a
somewhat healthy treat, it can’t begin to compare with a bowl of
blueberries, picked fresh from the meadow.

“Lipophilic and Hydrophilic Antioxidant Capacities of Common
Foods in the United States” Journal of Agricultural and Food
Chemistry, Vol. 52, No. 12,
“Berries, Beans Top ‘Best Antioxidants List'” E.J. Mundell,