Spice Up Your Antioxidant Protection
By Rosalie Marion Bliss
February 12, 2002
Ounce for ounce, many herbs used to
flavor our foods have more antioxidant power than berries, fruits and
vegetables, according to a recent Agricultural Research Service study.
Previous studies of animals and of human blood have shown that foods that score
high in antioxidant capacity may protect cells and their components from
oxidative damage. The thesis that oxidative damage culminates in many of the
maladies of aging is well accepted in the health community.
Herbs are known to be good sources of antioxidants, but their potency can
vary depending on species and growing conditions. So researchers at the
ARS Fruit Laboratory in
Beltsville, Md., evaluated a variety of fresh culinary and medicinal herbs
grown under the same environmental conditions at the same location, the
ARS National Arboretum in Washington,
ARS plant physiologist Shiow Wang and visiting scientist Wei Zheng from the
Institute of Environmental Science in Zhejing, China, put 27 culinary herbs and
12 medicinal herbs to the antioxidant test. Known as ORAC for short, the test
measures the ability of a sample to disarm oxidizing compounds, which our
bodies naturally generate as a byproduct of metabolism.
Three different types of oregano--Mexican, Italian and Greek
mountain--scored highest in antioxidant activity. Their activity was stronger
than that of vitamin E and comparable to the food preservative BHA against fat
oxidation, the researchers reported in the November 2001 issue of the Journal of Agricultural
and Food Chemistry.
Several other culinary herbs--among them rose geranium, sweet bay, dill,
purple amaranth and winter savory--also showed strong antioxidant activity. But
it was about one-half to one-third as potent as that of the oreganos. The
medicinal herbs generally scored lower in antioxidant activity, suggesting that
their health benefits mostly stem from other functions in the body.
According to Wang, antioxidant activity of these herbs may vary
considerably, depending on where they are grown. But their rankings would tend
to hold up in other environments because of characteristic compounds in each
species. The oreganos, for instance, had high levels of the potent antioxidant
The highest scorer in this study, Mexican oregano (Poliomintha
longiflora), is used in traditional Mexican and Southwest recipes. Its
flavor is a bit stronger than Italian oregano (Origanum x majoricum),
used to season meats, egg dishes, soups and vegetables. Greek mountain oregano
(Origanum vulgare ssp.hirtum), had the third highest score.
ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture.