While food manufacturers are regulated in some aspects of food labeling, there are several pieces of information put on food packaging to get shoppers to buy a particular product. Recently, I saw one product that proudly highlighted the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) of its secret ingredient, coffee fruit. Since learning about this product, I’ve seen ORAC in the news a couple of times, which means people might be confused by it. The science behind ORAC is legitimate, but there are many ways to misinterpret this new approach to identifying healthy foods.
For starters, let’s go over what ORAC actually measures. All of us have free radicals moving around our body. Too many free radicals are bad for our health, as they can result in genetic mutations. Fortunately, nature has created soldiers to combat these free radicals: antioxidants. These compounds, found mostly in food, interact with free radicals to ultimately render them harmless. Although we know that antioxidants are good for us, we don’t know exactly how much of them we need and there are no daily intake recommendations. We’re still studying how antioxidants work. Scientists developed ORAC to measure just how well different antioxidants can diffuse free radicals. Now the technique is being used to compare the antioxidant power of different foods. The chart below (based on USDA data) illustrates the wide spectrum of ORAC levels across foods. Values are presented for 100g of each food; I’ve provided serving equivalents that are more interpretable.
There are two things to think about when you see ORACs labeled on a food or drink. First, rationalize the serving size. It doesn’t make sense to eat a nonsensical amount (for example 33 garlic cloves) to get the ORAC level touted by the packaging. Second, take note of the actual ingredient the ORAC value is for. For example, cacao is very high in ORACs per gram when compared against other foods. It’s pretty easy to convince yourself that having some milk chocolate is healthy because it contains high ORAC levels. However, nearly all chocolate products sold for regular consumption aren’t 100% cacao. Getting lots of ORACs means you’d have to eat much more chocolate (and the fat and sugar that comes with it) than you think.
As an eater and food shopper, it’s important not to get carried away by processed food products that employ this latest way to distinguish themselves because ORAC is not a comprehensive measure of “goodness.” Besides, fruits and vegetables have had commendable ORAC levels for centuries – they just don’t have a label to highlight it.