Antioxidants have been the darling of the health media for several years now, and the studies demonstrating their disease-fighting powers continue to pile up. Research has also shown that plants — both edible fruits and vegetables and medicinal herbs — are the richest sources of antioxidant compounds.
An antioxidant is a molecule that can slow or prevent the oxidation of other molecules.
Many of the plants used as flavoring agents are also rich sources of antioxidants — even richer than the fruits and vegetables people have come to think of as disease-fighters. Case in point: Ounce for ounce, oregano (Origanum vulgare) delivers forty-two times more antioxidant activity than apples, twelve times more than oranges, and four times more than blueberries.
Oxidation is a natural chemical reaction that happens when one substance (known as an oxidizing agent) transfers electrons to another. It's a real paradox: Oxygen is crucial for survival, but it's a highly reactive element that can also cause problems.
Oxidation produces molecules called free radicals, which can damage cells through a process termed oxidative stress. And oxidative stress has been implicated in many diseases, including cancer and heart disease. Many plants — including medicinal herbs, culinary herbs, and plants eaten as food — are loaded with antioxidants. Some of the best-known plant-derived antioxidant compounds are:
Vitamin C (in cayenne, citrus fruits, and walnuts)
Vitamin E (in sunflower and flax oils)
Carotenoids (in carrots and spinach)
Polyphenols like resveratrol (in blueberries, grapes, and peanuts) and flavonoids (in citrus fruits, chocolate, and tea)
Flavonoids are a type of chemical compound called phenols, which are manufactured by plants as part of their self-defense system. Flavonoids are antioxidants that the plant synthesizes in response to oxidative stress — and they make excellent antioxidants for you, too.
Here are some of the more popular antioxidant herbs, many of which are eaten as foods or used as flavorings:
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Garlic (Allium sativum)
Grape (Vitis vinifera)
Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)
Pomegranate (Punica granatum)
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)