When scientists first discovered the power of antioxidants to destroy cell-damaging free radicals, the hunt was on.
They knew these preventers of cancer and heart disease were in colorful fruits and vegetables and nuts, but recently researchers have uncovered them in new, unexpected places. "The number and variety of these kamikaze substances we find in foods continue to grow," says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, of the American Dietetic Association.
And that's a good thing, experts say, because upping your antioxidant intake from as many sources as possible is more beneficial than getting them from just a few highly publicized foods. "Don't just eat blueberries every day and think you're covered," says Joe Vinson, PhD, an analytical chemist at the University of Scranton who specializes in measuring antioxidant levels of foods. "When you eat a diverse diet, you get the entire spectrum of benefits they deliver." Here, 8 places your antioxidants are hiding.
1. Whole Grain Pasta
Whole grain versions of pasta (whole wheat should be listed as the first ingredient) have 3 times more antioxidants than enriched or refined varieties, found Vinson's study at the University of Scranton. He and his team compared the enriched or refined with the whole grain versions of three spaghetti brands.
"Many epidemiological studies show that the consumption of whole grains can reduce the risk of heart disease," he says. "We used to think this was because of the fiber sweeping out the cholesterol, but it's looking more like it's the polyphenols' positive effect on blood pressure and other markers of heart health that deserve the credit." The concentrations of antioxidants in whole grain flour used to make wheat pasta are comparable to those found in fruits and veggies.
Popcorn has 4 times more polyphenols — powerful cancer-fighting plant compounds — than the average amount found in fruits, says Vinson, who tested several whole grain foods to measure antioxidant levels. "When air-popped at home, it's a 100% whole grain food, so it's not a complete surprise that it's packed with polyphenols," he says.
Eggs aren't commonly considered a rich source of the antioxidant lutein (which protects your eyes from macular degeneration and cataracts) because they have low concentrations of it, relative to top sources such as spinach. However, scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University discovered that the lutein in egg yolks is absorbed more effectively than that in spinach, possibly because the yolks' fat helps our bodies process the antioxidant much better. So even though one egg has only about 5% of the lutein found in just 1/4 cup of spinach, we absorb it 3 times more effectively, explains Elizabeth Johnson, PhD, coauthor of the Tufts study. "Spinach and other leafy greens are still the best sources, but whole eggs are another easy way to get more lutein," she says.