Cracking the Code on Antioxidants

I almost laugh when someone comes up to me and says he/she has a product with “the highest ORAC value” than any other thing on the market. I want to say to him/her (and those of you who know me know that I do) :”But what does it do at the cellular level?” They look at me as if I’m from another planet. They then quote me a handful of “testimonials” that they say have been “checked out and certified as being true.” Again, I want to know what it does to the cells.The more research I do on what our bodies need to optimal performance, the more I realize that we need the correct nutrients to make it happen.

So let’s briefly look at some history. The serum ORAC score was developed to look at the potential of something at reducing or reversing free radical damage to our cells. As you may recall, free radical damage can cause our cells to not perform in an optimal manner. It can affect our DNA in the cells, causing all sorts of damage. So looking at items we eat and what are ancestors ate for comparison can be very helpful in increasing or maintaining our quality of life. But then manufacturers and/or distributors or recently corporate level speakers have been manipulating the ORAC score for their product'(s) advantage in the $1 trillion dollar wellness industry.

So if we can’t use the ORAC score to determine what we need, what are our other options? Well, the ORAC score is still important, but more and more companies are reporting the total ORAC score. This comprises about 5 different tests to give a better picture as to the ingredients in a juice, or fruit or vegetable or supplement. But just because something has a decent ORAC score doesn’t always mean it’s OK for our bodies. The EU has banned the drinking of the popular teen drink, Red Bull, because of the increased number of strokes and other cardiovascular problems associated with it. But Red Bull has an ORAC 0f 512, which puts it near or just under the majority of “designer juices” that are out there. But it doesn’t make it good for us!

So now a newer way to evaluate a product or ingredient has been developed. In it, the first question of whether or not the nutrients actually get into our cells is answered. Then, what happens in our cells is determined. This is a better way to categorize the supplements we take. These cell-based assays are done in an independent laboratory. A certification program is being developed so we can compare supplements on a level playing field.

Gitte Jensen from NIS Labs, developer of the CAP-e antioxidant assay, a cell-based assay attracting much attention from the industry, told that her company is working on a certification program to differentiate products.

The Certified Bioavailable Antioxidants Program is a quality assurance program focusing on testing the bioavailability of antioxidants in humans. The program, which uses the CAP-e assay, will “strengthen marketing claims regarding antioxidants and make it easy for consumers by using a ‘third party’ testing facility,” said NIS Labs.

Many companies (and their products) quote only the ORAC score (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) as this is most common chemical assay to establish antioxidant activity. According to Stephen Daniells, in an article published recently in, “… with the list of assays longer than the proverbial arm, should one assay be singled out for consumers, and what do the results of such assays really mean?”

“I am strongly of the opinion that claims related to antioxidant capacity of products must be backed by in vivo experimental research on the product in question, including biological fluids as markers,” said Alex Schauss, Ph.D. “Just increasing the ORAC value provides no guarantee of greater benefit. It’s pure marketing and it is time the nutraceutical industry steps up to the plate and substantiates implicit and explicit claims of performance based on product antioxidant content.”

Sometimes marketers go too far. In October 2007, the UK’s Innocent was reprimanded by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for making a health claim about its smoothie having a high antioxidant content and detoxifying effect. The ASA said the advert by the firm claimed its fruit juice contained more antioxidants than the “five-a-day” portion. It was not truthful or substantiated.

Daniel Fabricant, PhD, vice president of scientific & regulatory affairs for the Natural Products Association (NPA), a trade association, said that a shift will have to occur in the not too distant future “to ensure that terms like antioxidant have meaning is some type of biological activity/ standardization associated with the term. “Now obviously there will be a multitude of endpoints but, if a product contains vitamin C as an antioxidant, how does that antioxidant level for vitamin C correlate with say an NK cell receptor activation assay” asked Dr Fabricant. “Do the other ingredients in that product potentiate the effect? There needs to be some sort of biological baseline to compare products. Obviously this won’t provide all of the answers – good clinicals are still needed but it will definitely progress things in the right direction,” he said.

It’s becoming more evident that you cannot simply rely on the ORAC score of a fruit, vegetable, juice or supplement to determine if this is something you want to take. Some companies load their products with ingredients that do no more than just increase the ORAC score. As Gitte Jensensaid earlier, measuring what actually happens at the cellular level is more important than simply quoting just the ORAC value.

Thomas Yarema, M.D. has written an explanation of what these “Cell-Based Assays” that Gitte Jensen talks about and why they are important. “Normal cellular living processes involve the release of free radicals to fight viruses, kill cancer cells and to destroy bacteria. These processes are called Oxidation. These processes must be appropriately targeted and of short duration. If they are not, then substantial collateral damage occurs to surrounding tissue. Antioxidants present in blood, cells and tissue fluids maintain the focus of oxidative processes, and help prevent the collateral damage to surrounding healthy tissues.

Recent research has shown that deficits of antioxidants during chronic inflammatory conditions such as pollution, smoke, sunlight and toxins causes an accelerated and exaggerated oxidative response, provoking additional inflammation, and leading to many degenerative diseases and accelerated aging. Obesity, immune dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, diminished cognitive function and cancer all share these features of unchecked oxidation; thus, research to identify effective anti-oxidants and quantify their abilities have been a focus of the nutritional industry.

Testing has focused upon biochemical assays of oOxidative chemical reactions in fluid nutrient fluids or bodily fluids, or human studies looking at clinical results with specific nutritional supplementation. ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) has been used as a relatively easy, inexpensive method to test bodily fluids or extracts of nutrients. However, this biochemical reaction method does not always correspond to clinical outcomes since it is only a laboratory or biochemical test. Clearly, there are more complex mechanisms of benefit at work than the limited series of chemical reactions measured by ORAC. Additionally, the solvents used in extracting a nutritional agent for ORAC testing can alter the chemical reactions being measured, giving a misleading result.

In the most recent years of nutritional research, cell-based testing has emerged as a new technology to assess these complex biologic protective mechanisms. Given our current knowledge of various oxidative mechanisms, different human cell types can be tested (red blood cells, neutrophilic white blood cells and macrophagic white blood cells) with a particular nutritional agent without using solvents that alter testing. The comparative results of cellular behavior before and after exposure to the nutrient, the behavior of one cell line versus another after exposure and the parallel of observed cellular behavior and reported testimonials helps lead to further understanding of cellular mechanisms. With a grounded sense of these mechanisms, human double-blind placebo-controlled, cross-over clinical trials can more appropriately be envisioned and executed.