Health Topics

  1. #
  2. A
  3. B
  4. C
  5. D
  6. E
  7. F
  8. G
  9. H
  10. I
  11. J
  12. K
  13. L
  14. M
  15. N
  16. O
  17. P
  18. Q
  19. R
  20. S
  21. T
  22. U
  23. V
  24. W
  25. X
  26. Y
  27. Z
Browse All Topics

Anti Up on the Veggies

Greens rank highest in chemical antioxidant assays (such as ORAC, TEAC, TRAP, and FRAP), but which vegetables lead the pack when cellular antioxidant activity is measured?

January 26, 2012 |
GD Star Rating


Supplementary Info

Sources Cited


Image thanks to Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.


In choosing the healthiest foods, you may notice that everywhere you look, everyone seems to have a different "top ten" list of the most antioxidant-rich foods, with probably dozens of competing commercial products swearing theirs is the "best of the best". Some are probably just making stuff up, but genuine competing estimates arise from people citing old data,

[J. Agric. Food Chem. 2004, 52, 4026-4037, "Lipophilic and Hydrophilic Antioxidant Capacities of Common Foods in the United States"]

where they only test a few dozen foods, or a few hundred, but other disparities arise from different labs using different tests.

There are four in common usage: ORAC, TEAC, TRAP, and FRAP. USDA likes ORAC. These researchers

[Nutrition Journal 2010, 9:3 "The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide"]

used FRAP, in part because it's one of the quickest methods, which is important if you're doing 3,000 foods. Each has their pros and cons, but the problem with all of them is that they're just measuring how good a particular food is at altering a chemical oxidation reaction in a test tube. It's not done in a biological system.

But for the first time ever, scientists at Cornell took 27 vegetables

[J. Agric. Food Chem. 2010, 58, 6621-6629, "Cellular Antioxidant Activity of Common Vegetables"]

and measured their cellular antioxidant activity: their ability to quench free radicals within cells, by testing various vegetables on cultures of human liver cells. Sure, some phytonutrient may be a great antioxidant outside the cell, but what if it can't get inside the cell? That's where we need it!

If you do the standard ORAC test, this is what you find: spinach at the top, cucumber at the bottom. No surprise; dark green leafy leads the pack. But again, this is a chemical assay, measuring how these foods slow down some oxidation reaction in a test tube, a reaction that actually doesn't even occur in nature. But hey, look, it's the best we had: until now. Any guesses as to who was able to unseat spinach? Here's the cellular antioxidant activity. Cucumber is still at the bottom. But now, beating everyone else: beets! Number one, spinach, isn't even in the top ten any more. All the cruciferous moved ahead: Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower. And hey, look, between the beets and the red bell pepper, it looks like the greens got beat out by the reds.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is transcript contributed by Bruce A. Hamilton.

To help out on the site please email

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

Please feel free to post any ask-the-doctor type questions here in the comments section and I’d be happy to try to answer them. Be sure to check out all the other videos on antioxidants and don't miss all the videos where we rank foods. And there are 1,449 subjects covered in the rest of my videos–please feel free to explore them!

Check out my associated blog post for more context:  Which Common Fruit Fights Cancer Better?

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    Please feel free to post any ask-the-doctor type questions here in the comments section and I’d be happy to try to answer them. Be sure to check out all the other videos on antioxidants and don’t miss all the videos where we rank foods. And there are 1,449 subjects covered in the rest of my videos–please feel free to explore them!

  • OCDmom

    Do you know of any research or connections between nutrition & mental illnesses such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anorexia, or other conditions involving the basal ganglia of the brain??

    • DrDons

      I’m not aware of studies for those disorders… there are studies suggesting that a plant based diet can help improve mood, depression and anxiety. See plus consumption of food additives on children see Hopefully more studies will come along showing the benefit of healthy eating on peoples mental well being.

    • guest

      Avoid gluten. Dr. Mcdougall has claimed that it can cause mental illness.

      • Ed

        What are you talking about? McDougall has never said anything bad about gluten. In fact, he recommends whole wheat as part of your “starch-based” diet, (unless you have Celiac disease like 1% of people). In fact, he’s already done a video about how “gluten-free” is a distraction from our real dietary problems.

  • jbwomer

    So, now what? Should I be putting beets in my smoothie instead of kale? What about all those other great green leafies, dump them for the new list?

    • veganlinda

      I usually put beets in my green smoothies (which makes them red). I wouldn’t throw out the greens, but add in the reds, but I’m no doctor.

    • Toxins

      jbwormer, antioxidants are only one aspect of the full nutritional profile of green leafies. There are many nutrients that do not act as antioxidants that are highly benifical to ones health. Keep the greens!

  • jmboss

    This new assay shows that Lettuce has more cellular antioxidant value than Romaine? Something seems very wrong here!

    Sorry to see that Kale doesn’t look to have been included in this study.

    • Bob

      It could be green leaf lettuce…it doesn’t specify iceberg.

  • jmboss

    I suspect the study on cellular antioxidant activity of 25 common fruits will be posted soon. Should be another very informative video.

    Wondering how the antioxidant values of spices would place using this new “real world” assay method.

  • Elvin

    Does this new information have any bearing on cooked vs raw? I recall that according to the video ‘ Best Cooking Method‘ (which by the way is an example of a video with excellent sound, not distorted/too loud /muffled), bell peppers should deffo not be cooked.

  • Ridley

    Dr. Greger:
    Where does swiss chard belong on the scale? I grow a lot of it and freeze it so that I can eat it all year. I use it the same way spinach is used. I much prefer it to spinach, and it is easier to grow in my climate. Does it have similar health benefits as spinach?

  • filippodibari

    This is a very interesting topic. Looking fwd to see the Codex Alimentarius to incorporate this way of measuring A.Ox. into their standard practice. Well spotted Dr Greger. Cheers. fil

  • Anne-Marie

    Is it possible to have the complete study (on cellular antioxydant activity) with the graphic. It will be very usefull for my work.
    Anne-Marie, dietician in Montreal

    • Michael Greger M.D.

      Je viens de vous l’a envoyé Anne-Marie profitez-en!

      • Adalberto

        Hi Dr. Greger,
        I would love to get this study on cellular antioxidants, but they’re charging for the full text! The source isn’t even cited here, I’ve seen it in the #7 DVD:
        J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Jun 9;58(11):6621-9.
        Cellular antioxidant activity of common vegetables.
        Song W, Derito CM, Liu MK, He X, Dong M, Liu RH.
        SourceDepartment of Food Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853-7201, USA.Thank you so much for all your work!Adalberto M. Caccia (from Italy)

  • Jordan Bray

    Can we assume that since beets were so good at penetrating and anti-oxidizing liver cells, that they will do that for all (or even most) cells in the body?

    Or, just like in ( will vegetables be more or less effective against different cancer cells?

    Jordan (Boston)

  • Jack Y.

    Watch your spelling! “Anti-” means against, suggesting one should beware of consuming more veggies. You probable mean “antE-up”.

  • Jack Y.

    I meant “you probably mean….”

    • Ed

      I think he was punning off of “anti-oxidants.”