Nutrition Articles

The Top 20 Antioxidant-Packed Foods

How Many of These Healthy Powerhouses Are You Eating?

If you’ve ever made a fruit salad, you probably know that squeezing lemon juice onto the apples, pears, and bananas will keep the fruit from turning brown. This brown color happens because of a process called oxidation—a reaction between the oxygen molecules in the air and the molecules in the substance the air meets. 
A similar type of reaction happens inside your body all the time. Substances called oxidants, or free radicals, react with your cells, harming healthy tissue, weakening immunological functioning, speeding up the aging process, and contributing to chronic degenerative diseases. These free radicals are formed through normal body processes, as well as through environmental exposure to the sun, pollution, cigarette smoke, too much stress, and the intake of alcoholic beverages and unhealthy food.  Antioxidants are substances that work like that lemon juice on the fruit, protecting healthy tissue by destroying free radicals before they do any damage. Antioxidants are believed to play a role in helping to fight and prevent cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic conditions.
So, how do you get these magical antioxidants to work for you? Not surprisingly, a healthy diet full of a variety of fruits and vegetables will do the trick. But are all fruits and vegetables created equally when it comes to antioxidant benefits? Not necessarily!

In a study published in the July 9, 2004 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the USDA analyzed over 100 different foods and their antioxidant levels. Each food item was ranked according to its antioxidant concentration and its antioxidant capacity per serving size. 
The results may surprise you. Topping the list were small red beans and wild blueberries. Cranberries, red kidney beans, and artichokes also ranked very high, and unexpected contenders included pecans and ordinary russet potatoes. 
However, every study has its drawbacks. Researchers say that although the data can help guide consumers who wish to include more antioxidants in their diet, the health benefits of these foods may not be directly proportional to their antioxidant content.  So, even though small red beans have the most antioxidants, they may not offer the greatest overall health benefits when you consider the other nutrients they contain (or lack). Keep in mind that the health benefits of antioxidant-rich foods depend on how the foods are absorbed and utilized in the body, and this varies depending on the food (and where it was grown, how it was grown, when it was harvested and more).
For reference, here are the top 20 antioxidant-rich foods in the USDA study, in order from greatest to lowest levels of antioxidants.

Be sure to "Pin" this list for future reference to add a variety of wholesome foods to your diet.

Try Them!:












Try Them!:
Granny Smith Salad


Try Them!



Try Them!:
Russet Oven Fries




Researchers and scientists are currently trying to come to a consensus to provide guidelines for antioxidant intake, much like the guidelines the government provides for vitamin and mineral intake. This USDA study will probably help this process along, but such guidelines are still probably far away. However, you don’t have to wait for these guidelines to start improving your diet! Aim for a variety of fruits and vegetables, as always, and try to incorporate many of the fruits, vegetables and nuts that rank high in the USDA antioxidant study--in addition to other whole, nutritious foods that aren't on the list. And remember that how you prepare these foods makes a difference, too; deep-fried russet potato "fries" and sugary blueberry pie will still probably do more harm than good!
Clemson Cooperative Extension. "Antioxidants," accessed May 2013.
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About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.

Member Comments

  • I don't use lemon juice for the fruit. I have found that canned pineapple with juice, keeps my fruits much fresher than the lemon juice. Give it a try. - 11/24/2015 9:15:00 PM
  • I agree with Woubbie's comment. Also the need for updating.

    I still reckon the best way to go is moderation while getting as wide a variety as possible - especially given the disclaimer in the article that the highest antioxidant providers do not necessarily provide the overall best nutrition. - 10/27/2015 5:14:05 PM
  • Organic dried beans, properly soaked/sprouted, rinsed and boiled till tender are cheaper, healthier, more easily digested and BPA-free. They are heavy on carbs, though.

    I do think it is odd to list blueberries twice, and beans several times. Some of the fruits are on EWG's Dirty Dozen list, so I buy organic to reduce pesticide intake. - 9/29/2015 9:58:52 AM
  • Very disappointed in SP's use of graphics for lists and such. As a blind user of SP I am not able to read such lists. I wanted to do this as part of the fit food challenge and not sure of the entire list. Got the gist of the list from the recipe suggestions, but.... Can't you just use text in articles? Thanks. - 9/17/2015 11:50:45 AM
    Nutrition Action says anti oxidants has not shown, over time, to be the "power house" that they thought and hoped it would be, does not cure anything, for one thing, researchers are disappointed in latest findings. Companies that sell supplements don't tell you that, would lose a lot of business . Billion Dollar business, don't forget it. - 8/17/2015 4:50:58 AM
    Hi Liza and thank you for this helpful article. It really helps to know which food have anti-oxidant properties for, you know, a lot people die of cancer every single day. Your article can be a real lifesaver. Please, recommend this idea to your other readers too. Mil fois.
    ing_healthy - 7/30/2015 12:27:19 PM
  • TONYD55
    No mention of chia seeds? They are the real powerhouse. - 4/13/2015 10:55:28 AM
    Too bad they are finding out anti oxidants are not really the "miracle" they hoped they would be, researchers say they expected more from anti oxidants than what is being found out. Don't expect cures of disease from them, and don't go crazy spending tons of money on those foods. - 4/12/2015 8:21:00 AM
    Dzpups dried beans have less sodium and better for u then canned - 4/12/2015 7:08:44 AM
  • I love everything on this list except black beans and artichokes. Maybe I'll have to learn to like them. - 1/24/2015 11:20:54 AM
  • Dried beans you have control over how they are processed. You control salt content and you can even try sprouting, but use organic and it takes awhile for the bigger beans. By using dried beans you also save on environmental waste, and you control the serving sizes better. I soak most of mine overnight and then brink to a boil for 20 min and drain the water, this reduces the gas production. I then put fresh water on to boil and cook them until they are the consistency you want. some like them all mushy, some like them in the bean shape, just make sure they are fully cooked first. - 12/11/2014 1:56:51 PM
    Latest research shows scientists are disappointed in anti-oxidants, they are showing up to not be the "be all and end all" that they were first thought to be. So enjoy those foods, but don't expect them to do miracles, either. - 11/1/2014 2:17:30 PM
  • I'm doing pretty darn good! I love berries! - 11/1/2014 9:03:44 AM
  • Best description of anti-oxidents I have read! - 9/30/2014 1:17:52 PM

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