Many people know about the value of antioxidants, and have probably heard the term ‘ORAC scale’ used in conjunction with antioxidants. But what exactly is the ORAC scale? What does the word ORAC actually stand for? Is the ORAC scale an accurate measurement of antioxidants? How many antioxidants does a person need every day to maintain optimal health? Good questions!
What is the ORAC Scale?
ORAC is an acronym for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. The ORAC score or scale (also called ORAC unit or ORAC value) is a method of measuring antioxidant capacity. It was developed by scientists at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), which is part of the National Institute of Health (NIH). This method measures the antioxidant activity of a food and not the antioxidant level of the individual nutrients within the food. At the same time it measures any synergistic effects of the food’s nutrients, which can work together to produce antioxidant activity.
The underlying theory in developing this scale is that foods with a high ORAC value contain a higher amount of antioxidants and have stronger antioxidant capabilities. Therefore, they will be more effective at neutralizing free radicals that cause oxidative stress, disease and premature aging. But does that really hold true?
How accurate is it?
The accuracy of the ORAC scale is controversial. There are a few reasons:
- Some of the ORAC scores can be misleading because the values in the database are based on a 100 gram serving size (approximately 3 ounces). Not all foods or spices are consumed in that quantity, so the ORAC value changes dramatically when the serving size is converted to a typical serving size that would be consumed at one time.
- Many researchers believe that the body can only use a certain amount of antioxidants at one time, which means there may be no added benefit to consuming foods with extremely high ORAC values. Some researchers even warn that excessive amounts of antioxidants, particularly from supplements, may actually interfere with optimal functioning.
- It has not been proven whether there really is any relationship between ORAC values of various foods and human health benefits. ORAC testing uses test-tube methods and the results seen in the test tube will not necessarily be the same as the results in the body.
Interestingly, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) withdrew the publication of their extensive ORAC tables in 2012 because no correlation between biological activity and test results could be found. As a result of this, both the USDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have established that it is illegal to imply potential health benefits on packaging of products indicating high ORAC value.
So how many antioxidants does a person require on a daily basis to maintain optimal health?
More controversy here. During my research I found many websites with ORAC value lists, and several varied opinions on the whole subject. Some sources say that a person needs from 3000 to 5000 ORAC units per day, but how accurate is that? Other sources tell us that a certain amount of free radicals are both natural and necessary in order to stimulate our body’s own production of antioxidants, so having too many antioxidants is actually counter-productive for us.
There are many components to a healthy dietary lifestyle, and the ORAC scale is only one part of the larger picture. It is important to have a balanced diet and a good variety of healthy foods that include whole foods, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, healthy grains, good protein choices and clean water. If a person has a good variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables in their daily diet, they are probably getting enough antioxidants and the whole subject of the ORAC scale is no longer significant.
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