Antioxidants explained: what are antioxidants plus a list of best sources

Antioxidants explained: what are antioxidants plus a list of best sources


Antioxidants are compounds in foods that search for and neutralise free radicals produced by the ever present process of oxidation in the human body. Therefore, antioxidants are vital to prevent some of the damage caused by free radicals.

Oxidation, a natural chemical process happening all the time in the body, occurs on the cellular level when an atom loses electron(s) during chemical interactions with other atoms, and as a result may become a free radical (i.e. an unstable chemical molecule).

Free radicals damage cell membranes (especially phospholipids), LDL cholesterol and many other body structures including DNA. The body can cope with some free radicals and even needs them to function effectively. However, the damage caused by an overload of free radicals over time may become irreversible and lead to certain illnesses including heart disease, liver damage and some cancers.

Free radicals production can be accelerated by stress, poor diet, cigarette smoking, alcohol, environmental pollution and other factors. Some of the degenerative conditions caused by free radicals include:

  • Increased risk of coronary heart disease, since free radicals encourage LDL cholesterol to stick to artery walls
  • Inflammation of the joints associated with arthritis
  • Damage to nerve cells in the brain which contributes to conditions such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease
  • Acceleration of the ageing process
  • Certain cancers triggered by damaged cell DNA
  • Deterioration of the eye (cataracts)

Antioxidants are absolutely essential for the body to be healthy and perform well. Many antioxidants are vital for the immune system function and the reduction of oxidative stress as an inflammatory trigger. One of the most important applications of antioxidants is their anti-ageing properties.


Plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and wholegrains but also some meats, poultry and fish, are rich sources of antioxidants. Excellent sources of specific antioxidants include:

Fat soluble antioxidants – vital for cardiovascular health, cancer prevention, immunity, fertility, eye health. Examples include:

  • Vitamin E – vegetable oils (such as wheat germ oil), avocados, nuts, seeds and whole grains
  • Vitamin A (only present in animal foods)– liver, cream, egg yolks, butter, cod liver oil
  • Beta-carotene (plant form of vitamin A) – pumpkin, carrots, mangoes, apricots, spinach, parsley
  • Lutein – green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, parsley
  • Lycopene – tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon, guava
  • Cryptoxanthin – red capsicum, pumpkin, mangoes
  • Always have the above foods with a fat containing meal as fat facilitates absorption and utilisation of antioxidants

Water soluble antioxidants – vital for cancer prevention, cardiovascular health, immunity, connective tissue support (e.g. joints, muscles), and to decrease inflammation. Examples include:

  • Vitamin C – oranges, blackcurrants, kiwifruit, mangoes, broccoli, spinach, capsicum, rose hip tea
  • Sulphur compounds – onions, garlic, leeks, cabbage
  • Anthocyanins (black and purple pigments) – eggplant, grapes, berries, black beans
  • Catechins – red wine, black and green tea
  • Flavonoids – citrus fruits, red wine, onions, apples, black and green tea
  • Indoles – cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts
  • Isoflavonoids – organic tofu, natto, lentils, peas
  • Lignans – sesame seeds, flaxseeds, whole grains, starchy vegetables, broccoli, chia seeds
  • Polyphenols – present in herbs including in thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, peppermint, as well as in extra virgin olive oil

Mineral antioxidants – vital for cancer prevention, immunity, cardiovascular health, brain and neuroprotection, fertility, connective tissue health, enzyme functions (as cofactors). Examples include:

  • Copper – seafood (especially oysters), organ meats (liver), most nuts and seeds, buckwheat
  • Manganese – tea, spices (cloves and cardamom), ginger, wheat germ, leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds
  • Selenium – Brazil nuts (the richest source), organ and muscle meats, fish and shellfish, broccoli, mushrooms
  • Zinc – oysters, red meat and organ meats, eggs, nuts (pecans and Brazil nuts), pumpkin seeds, legumes, ginger and chili

Herbal antioxidants – found in fresh and dried herbs. Examples include:antioxidants

  • Turmeric – for cancer prevention, strongly anti-inflammatory, liver protective
  • Resveratrol (red grapes, red wine) – anti-ageing, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, prevents blood clots, brain and neuroprotective, blood sugar regulating. Protects blood vessels against atherosclerosis
  • Grape seed – for cardiovascular health, cancer prevention, varicose veins support, blood sugar balancing, skin health (supports collagen)
  • Green tea – for cancer prevention, cardiovascular health, liver protection, anti-inflammatory, promotes weight loss, mood enhancing. Reduces the risk of oesophageal, stomach, colon and bladder cancer (in human studies)

Animal derived antioxidants – found in red meat and organ meats such as liver (must be organic and/or grass fed) and wild fish. Antioxidants in meats are also derived from the plants animals eat.

Antioxidants (electrons) directly from the Earth – earthing or grounding by walking barefoot on grass or sand is a great source of free antioxidants as electrons from the Earth have antioxidant effects on the body. Studies have shown that earthing improves blood viscosity, heart rate variability, reduces inflammation, sleep, autonomic nervous system (ANS) balance, and reduces effects of stress. Find out more here.

There is increasing evidence that antioxidants are more effective when obtained from whole, organically grown foods, rather than isolated from a food and presented in tablet form. The best way to get a great variety of antioxidants in the diet is to eat deeply coloured plant foods every day as each colour indicates unique antioxidant properties. Purple and black coloured foods are especially valuable.

As a bonus, foods high in antioxidants are also high in fibre and are excellent sources of other vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. However, in certain cases taking a high quality antioxidant supplements for a period of time is also highly beneficial as it will considerably speed up healing and regeneration.

Clinical experience shows that more than 80% of patients do not consume the recommended 1-2 servings of fruits and 3-5 servings of vegetables each day, and thus they don’t get the necessary antioxidant protection. Simple steps of modifying and expanding your eating habits to include food-based antioxidants will make a huge difference to the way you feel, think and behave!

Good health and blessings

Joanna Sochan
Adrenal Fatigue and Digestive Health Expert
Naturopath || Herbalist || Nutritionist || Reiki Practitioner

Cover photo credit: Shutterstock

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  1. Kathleen Quinlan November 13, 2015 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    Do you have anything that helps high cholesterol? and high blood pressure?

    • Joanna Sochan November 16, 2015 at 2:38 pm - Reply

      Hi Kathleen

      Thank you for your enquiry. There are many causes of high cholesterol and/or blood pressure and they need to be assessed an an individual basis. For example high cholesterol could be caused by faulty genes (less common) or by the liver not working properly (quite common). The liver manufactures about 85% of cholesterol in the body and the remaining 15% comes from the diet. Hence, improving liver function (with nutrition, supplements and/or herbs) should help to lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure as well.

      I often see in practice that high blood pressure correlates with emotional blocks and unresolved emotional issues so it’s well-worth investigating this as well. Check out this article

      All the best

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