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Is that right? Oregano has more antioxidants than spinach?

"Just half a teaspoon of dried oregano has as many antioxidants as 3 cups of spinach."


That quote, attributed to dietitian Wendy Bazilian, appears in an article about "The World's Healthiest Diet" in the March issue of Ladies' Home Journal. The diet in question is of the Mediterranean variety, which I've written about and which many nutrition experts believe is the most healthful approach to eating.

That oregano/spinach comparison got me wondering. How are antioxidants in food actually measured? And what does the relative amount of antioxidants in a food mean in terms of health for the humans eating that food?

My curiosity was compounded by the fact that Wendy Bazilian appears as a nutrition expert on the Web site of McCormick spices. In magazine ads and on that site, McCormick's made much of the antioxidant power of spices. As any consumer today knows, antioxidant content has become a big selling point for all kinds of foods -- despite the fact that nobody quite knows exactly how these compounds, of which there are thousands, actually might work to keep us healthy.

Antioxidants are believed to counter the damage that naturally occurs within our bodies during the process of living. They're thought to mitigate damage caused by free radicals, unhinged oxygen molecules that may cause inflammation or other harm to our cells.

But science hasn't yet figured out the details of those interactions. One of the big unknowns is how a compound's antioxidant activity in a laboratory test tube translates to any such activity in our bodies.

Another big question is how best to measure antioxidant content. Perhaps the most popular scale in use today is the ORAC assay. Dried oregano's ORAC (for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) score is 200,129 (micromoles of Trolox Equivalents for 100 grams); raw spinach's is just 1,515 of those units. So, by that measure, oregano is clearly the antioxidant victor.

But when I looked up both foods on NutritionData.com, I got a different picture. Whereas a teaspoon of dried oregano has just 1 percent of the Daily Value for the antioxidant vitamins A and C, a cup of spinach has 56 percent of the DV for Vitamin A and 14 percent of the DV for Vitamin C. And the nutrition facts paint a fuller picture than a mere accounting of antioxidant values. For instance, they show that the cup of spinach supplies nearly twice the Vitamin K we need in a day, while oregano delivers only 8 percent of that DV. Vitamin K, though essential to bone health and blood-clot formation, isn't usually considered an antioxidant.

Jeffrey Blumberg, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston, told me that various methods of measuring antioxidant capacity will assess foods differently, as each of them values some kinds of antioxidants over others. In any case, he says, antioxidant content is just one component of a food's nutritional value and shouldn't be the reason you choose one food -- say, dried oregano -- over another. Many of the antioxidants present in a food might not be bioavailable -- usable by the body -- he notes.

And just looking for antioxidant content may blind us to the other nutritional values a food may offer. Even a vitamin classified as an antioxidant, such as Vitamin C, helps our bodies in ways that have nothing to do with antioxidant activity. Such nutrients, Blumberg notes, "have different kinds of beneficial bioactive effects" that have nothing to do with antioxidant effects.

"Some people have suggested that there are really simple ways to look at antioxidants and express their values," Blumberg says. "I would argue that when you simplify things in that manner, you add to the confusion."

Blumberg would rather see me evaluate a food's total nutritional makeup using a source such as NutritionData.com or the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference than to rely on an antioxidant scale to get a full picture of that food's likely benefits.

As for oregano versus spinach, Blumberg says, "I would never say 'skip the spinach and eat oregano.' If you want to make me really happy, give me a recipe that adds oregano to spinach."

Here you go, Dr. Blumberg.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  February 12, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Is That Right? , Nutrition and Fitness  
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Comments

Sounds like the jury may still be out on this one, but what I can take away from it is that eating green won't hurt. I don't think I'll be taking shots of Oregano any time soon, but it is good to know that a good sprinkling on food adds to the meal's health benefit.

Gotta love living healthy.

Live Day1

Posted by: BMcD11 | February 12, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

There are many foods that are very rich in antioxidants and some even have antibiotic properties like oregano and olive leaf extracts.

The Mediterranean diet is an excellent model for Americans for numerous reasons: higher fish and fish oil consumption, olive and avocado oils, citrus, tomatoes, garlic, onions, red wine and spices.

The American diet leads to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Over processed and refined food rob us of vitamins and minerals, as well as necessary fiber the body needs for proper digestion and regularity. It contains too many unhealthy sweeteners and too much salt.

Americans need to learn that it is better to spice their food than add extra salt and sugar. The healthiest spices include turmeric, chilies, and yes, oregano.

Posted by: alance | February 12, 2010 10:07 PM | Report abuse

Any reason why papers are dying? It took 12 paragraphs to answer a simple question.
Aye carumba!

Posted by: crrobin | February 13, 2010 12:36 AM | Report abuse

Since Wendy works for McCormick, it's only natural that she'd try to drum up business by pushing people to buy Oregano with her health claims. You can bet you'll see more of this type of hype so everyone can get a piece of the pie. It's clear the writer of this article did their homework and oregano doesn't live up to the claims. Besides, you can only add so much oregano to any dish. Watch this unfold as someone cleverly comes out with an oregano pill.

Posted by: poescrow | February 13, 2010 6:02 AM | Report abuse

How about if I add s ome oregano to my spinach?

Posted by: fusillijerry | February 13, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

My kids don't care about antioxidants, but they do notice that things taste better when I cook them with generous amounts of the fresh herbs I grow on my windowsill. If this causes them to prefer food made from scratch, there's a major health benefit.

Posted by: drmary | February 13, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I can see people mixing it with their protein shakes and other things. People put wheat germ, fruit and other things in their drinks and mixing with juices and what have you; why not? It is amazing the nature grown food stuffs that have been with is for 1000's of years. It can't be any worse than these synthetic 'nutrients' we are plied.

Posted by: jakesfriend1 | February 13, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Dear Jennifer, I was just reading article on "Tamarind" that it is really good source of antioxidants that fight against cancer, i want to hear from you that its true or not? because I like to eat them a lot,

It was also written it dose not looses its vitamin C properly, even its kept open.

so my question is that can I eat Tamarind instead of oranges, will i get same benefits that i get from eating oranges?

let me know,
Carlin Tandurust,
http://www.tandurust.com/

Posted by: iamcarlin976 | February 15, 2010 6:27 AM | Report abuse

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