story by Alison Clare Steingold
photo by Ann Cecil
Unless you’ve been living in a McDonald’s for the past ten years, you’ve heard of antioxidants. These magic molecules are one reason why fruits and vegetables are so good for you. Antioxidants neutralize “free radicals”—damaging molecules that if left unchecked could accelerate aging and lead to illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. Exotic newcomers like açai, acerola and mangosteen are being sold for top dollar at health food stores around the country, but how do Hawai‘i’s more familiar home-grown fruits stack up in antioxidant power?
Food scientists in laboratories at Tufts University and the National Institute on Aging have developed the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) scale to measure antioxidant power. While acerola cherry, wild blueberry and other dark purple and red fruits like açai top the ORAC list, many of Hawai‘i’s favorite local fruits also rank high: Guava, it turns out, tops the local scale, with more antioxidant-richness per serving than broccoli. Star fruit and the exotic-looking red dragonfruit (the fruit of the night-blooming cereus cactus) pack a nutritious punch with antioxidant phenolics, fiber and vitamins C and E. In general, the more tart the fruit—such as you’d find in an ‘ohelo berry, for example—the higher the antioxidant value.
Skeptics argue that trendy, overpriced super-fruits such as Himalayan goji berries and a relative newcomer to Hawai‘i, the mangosteen, are more marketing than mojo. For starters, the ORAC test might be accurate, but the fruits themselves vary; they measure differently if they’re dried versus fresh, in or out of season, and grown organically or with chemicals. Moreover, the list is far from comprehensive and continues to evolve as new fruits enter the global market.
That said, consuming one-half to one cup of any variety of tropical fruits daily couldn’t hurt you; they’re chock-full of nutrients your body can’t absorb by vitamins alone. And even if they’re sweet, like papaya, mango or pineapple (and therefore not as high in antioxidant value), they still offer an abundance of key nutrients. HH