Antioxidants Explained by a Chef
Updated: Nov 6, 2019
25 years ago, when I started scrubbing pots and pans and dumping out 5 day old sour New England Clam Chowder into a dumpster, I probably would've never guessed that I would attempt to explain what a "Free Radical" is. Until the recent years I would've assumed it had to do with politics. If it has to do with politics I just completely lose track of my.....
So what was I saying?... Oh yes, this science stuff. The words used in the research I have done are complex and scientific and very un-chef like. However, in order for me to use food to improve your health, it's important for me to understand what food does or doesn't do once we chew it. So hopefully this explanation will makes sense to you because it actually made a lot of sense to me.
The science of cells
Free radicals are a by product of metabolism which is imperative to making fuel from food. According to Huntington's Outreach Project for Education at Stanford University, a large amount of Free Radicals are produced from Fried Foods, Alcohol, Cigarette Smoke and Pesticides. Of course there are many other sources, but those are the highest contributors.
Here's what's important. Cells in your body are made of up molecules. Molecules contain electrons. Electrons are stable in pairs, so I guess that makes them co-dependent. Free Radicals are single electrons and have no respect for monogamy and will steal an electron for itself from another molecule. That creates a chain reaction of molecules stealing electrons from each other to become stable. This actually makes the cell very unstable and outright, insecure.
When a cell is insecure the entire relationship is insecure and now, the cell walls have no filter and will allow almost anything to come in and out, and frankly anything will piss it off, including toxins or leaving an empty water bottle on the counter.
The overly confident Antioxidants
The only way to calm a disruption is to create balance and stability again. Antioxidants have the ability to give up an electron to a Free Radical thief without becoming unstable itself. So what happens? The chain reaction of electron swapping ends. Cells remain intact, healthy and strong. An empty water bottle is no longer an issue, hell even socks on the floor are just pushed aside and life continues. For now at least.
Beware of Oxidative Stress
Without balancing the Free Radicals by consuming antioxidant rich foods, we are at risk of oxidative stress caused by an overrun of unstable cells. Overtime, oxidative stress can lead to macular degeneration, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, emphysema, alcoholism, Alzheimer, Parkinson Disease, Ulcers, Arthritis, Lupus, Holy CRAP...
What's Considered an Antioxidant?
Luckily, these bad boys are found in our food. They come in several different forms and in different foods. The cool science guys call these; Carotenoids, Lutein, Resveratrol, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Lycopene and other phytonutrients.
How to take some action
So let's get to the nitty grits, here is how you find these in the grocery store and get them in your mouth. Below is a list of Antioxidant rich ingredients:
Berries- Acai and Blueberries are definitely among my fave's. Don't forget, Strawberries are the most toxic produce on the market if they aren't organic and as you read earlier, pesticides cause Free Radicals.
Tomatoes- Red tomatoes contain lycopene. I listed that above as one of those complicated antioxidants. To get the most lycopene out of a tomato and to help absorb it as well, it's necessary to cook the tomatoes. You can grill them and make salsa. You can also make a tomato sauce (cooked for hours like grandma used to do so all the acid floats to the top and gives you agida for 3 days) or pomodoro sauce (fresh tomatoes cooked for 45 minutes, no heartburn included) with garlic oil, onions and basil. Serve that over some roasted eggplant. Add some saffron to break your bank but impress your friends.
Broccoli- I think the trick to getting your kids to eat this is to call them "Trees". Broccoli, garlic and oil will probably always be my favorite Italian preparation. Of course that used to be served with cavatelli pasta and Italian sausage. I can remember my mother turning into a character from the God Father when she ordered that from a restaurant. "I'll have the Gava-Delle". Personal opinion though, whatever you do, don't cook the life out of it unless you're pureeing it. That goes for all vegetables
Spinach- So versatile. Great for a salad. Perfect for adding it to a smoothie. Finish a soup with it. Saute it. Just be gentle and you're all set. It's nice to add it last minute before you serve a dish. Think of it as "wilting it" instead of cooking it.
Nuts- Pistachios or Cashews? Which is the King Nut? They all have a purpose. If you're cooking with them, remember they are high in good fats and oils. The flavor is in the oil so treat them like a coffee bean, lightly roast them to bring out the best flavors. Just make sure to cool them before popping one in your mouth. That's some good advice right there. If you want to make a nut milk, it's probably easier than you think. Soak raw nuts overnight in water. The next day, dump out that water and add fresh water plus the nuts to a blender. Blend them as best as you can and strain out the particles. Done. If you're adding this to coffee or cereal and you prefer it sweetened, use some organic cane sugar to your liking.
Green Tea- Matcha is probably the most antioxidant rich tea. The difference between Matcha and a steeped green tea is that Matcha is the whole leaf ground into a fine powder and then dissolved in your hot water or milk. This way, you are consuming 100% of the benefits and it's very concentrated. The Japanese Sencha leaf is very delicate. It prefers to steep in less than boiling temperature water, preferably 180-190F. The longer you steep it, the more of the phytochemicals will develop and release into the tea water. The closer to 10 minutes, the better. You can drink iced green tea as well, within 24 hours of steeping, the benefits will remain the same. The caffeine isn't too much that you'll get tweaked out either.
Hopefully Antioxidants make a little more sense to you now and you know where to find them. Changing your diet won't happen overnight or in one article, but gradual changes will make a gradual, yet impactful difference. So keep chewing your food, just know what you're chewing. Your body will thank you.