Former Visiting Professor Patrick Holford and Head of Science and Education at Biocare advised his audience on how to increase their consumption of ORAC units in a recent talk at the Allergy and Gluten Free Show 2008. Holford was shilling for his 100%health newsletter and describing the research that he and his team do for it and emphasising the importance of a scientific approach. For a brief, heady moment, it seemed as if Holford were about to advise the audience to take regular doses of Respectful Insolence but it soon transpired that he had oxygen radical absorbance capacity (pdf) in mind.
There has been a lot of excitement lately about Dan Buettner’s The Blue Zones: : Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. The book is a lively account of a research project that used several research disciplines to identify areas where people live happier, longer lives and assess some of the common denominators that link sardinian shepherds, japanese grandmothers and an enclave of Seventh-Day Adventists in Los Angeles. There are some unsurprising findings to do with diet (fruit and vegetables feature prominently) but also oddities such as the observation that these people tend to eat 2oz of nuts a day, 5 times a week or so. However, over-arching all of this was the sense of the importance of family, social interaction and other such factors.
Buettner says he has identified four things people can do that can potentially increase life expectancy: Create an environment that encourages physical activity, set up your kitchen in such a way that you’re not overeating, cultivate a sense of purpose and surround yourself with the right people.
So, it was perhaps not too surprising that when Holford claimed that he and his research team scour the science to bring you useful information, every second month, you might guess that you will soon read something about longevity, with an emphasis on diet/nutrition rather than the important social factors. Oddly enough, you should look out for the very next 100%health newsletter because Holford and his team will report their findings that:
the six longest-living populations in the world all consume very high anti-oxidants-what’s called 6000 ORACs a day. So, we’ve been looking at what are the 10-20 top ways to get these ORACs-2000 ORACs. And the answer is one-third of a teaspoon of cinammon a day is 2000. Half a teaspoon of oregano. [Use it in your pasta sauce.] Half a teaspoon of turmeric, you want to use turmeric a lot…3 squares of 70% cocoa dark chocolate. One-third of a glass of red wine. 8 blueberries. Half a cup of berries, like strawberries. 8 asparagus tips. A small serving of red lentils or red kidney beans. A spoonful of mustard.
Now, you might think that Holford’s crack research team has been drudging away in a laboratory to bring you this information. After a few seconds of googling, HolfordWatch had located the latest ORAC values for foodstuffs in the USDA Nutrient Database (pdf) and learned that there is a downloadable database (MS Access). If HolfordWatch had wanted to create a list of “the 10-20 top ways to get these ORACs-2000 ORACs”, we would probably compile it from these sources, but, then again, we’re not a crack team of IONistas nor do we collect subscriptions for our value-added services.
You may recognise some of the food items that Holford named in Table 1 (pdf) which helpfully confirms that spices such as cinnamon, turmeric and mustard are high in ORAC values per 100g but when you consider conventional serving sizes, they lose their top rankings to unsweetened chocolate and fresh fruit.
HolfordWatch may be wrong, and it may prove that Holford is inviting people to mix and match among several dietary sources of ORACs a day, but we do wonder if there will be an addition to the Patrick Holford Biocare range, one that offers you the convenience of taking your ORACs in a capsule without trying to plan your meals around various spices. And, again, it might only be us, but talking about unfamiliar ORACs rather than the vitamins, anti-oxidants and minerals with which people are familiar, makes them sound as if they are an additional extra to your diet that has to be consciously incorporated, rather than something that is already present in substantial quantities.
If anybody is contemplating an uptick in their ORAC consumption, you might like to recall that lots of fruit and vegetables have good ORAC values (consult the above resources). However, we feel that we must mention that it is far from clear that high ORAC values in foodstuffs translate to higher plasma (blood) antioxidant capacity (AOC), far less any anti-ageing or chronic disease countering effects. E.g., although plums yield a high antioxidant content upon analysis, plums did not raise plasma AOC levels in volunteers who participated in an experiment where they ate them and then had their blood analysed after consumption. It seems as if “one of the major phytochemicals in plums is chlorogenic acid, a compound not readily absorbed by humans”. Eating fruit and vegetables is A Good Thing and we would encourage that. However, as long as you eat an ample quantity and variety in a day, and select them from various parts of the colour spectrum, you may well be consuming all of the phytonutrients that you need without wondering about where you might obtain more (such as taking specially formulated capsules or especially potent extracts).
Apparently, we would be well on the way to a high anti-oxidant consumption if we were to drink modest amounts of the following: fruit juice at breakfast; coffee mid-morning; green tea at lunch; red wine with dinner and cocoa before bed. It is all a matter of personal dietary preferences and what suits personal schedules.
It almost seems as if the macro and micro nutrients look after themselves when you consume a varied, well-balanced diet. And all without concerning ourselves unduly about ORACs or other units that are not yet fully standardised or readily explicable.
What about the role of ORACs in longevity?
Overall, it seems as if Buettner summarised the quest for longevity well:
The idea of discovering a magic source of long life still has so much appeal…that charlatans and fools perpetuate the same boneheaded quest, whether it comes disguised as a pill, diet, or medical procedure. In an all-out effort to squash the charlatans forever, demographer S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois at Chicago and more than 50 of the world’s top longevity experts issued a position statement in 2002 that was as blunt as they could fashion it.
“Our language on this matter must be unambiguous,” they wrote. “There are no lifestyle changes, surgical procedures, vitamins, antioxidants, hormones, or techniques of genetic engineering available today that have been demonstrated to influence the processes of aging.”
HolfordWatch is sure that you will weigh the relative research endeavours of the researchers in mind if you are fortunate enough to come across the panegyric to ORACs in the upcoming 100%health newsletter. Particularly if that newsletter or any accompanying material offers you the opportunity to purchase convenience in the form of ORACs in a special anti-oxidant formula.
 There are several ways to express ORAC units. Some evaluations report ORAC units per grams dry weight, others as wet weight and others find it more useful to report ORAC units per typical serving. ORAC values will vary according to the state of a food item. E.g., a raisin is high in ORACs because of its reduced water weight; the grape from which it originated will seem to have a lower ORAC because it retains its water.
ORAC values may vary according to: a cultivar (e.g., mexican, italian or greek mountain oregano); growing conditions (e.g., soil, climate); stage of maturation at harvesting; food processing and preparation (e.g., dried, demi-sec, whether a fruit juice has additives; fresh; freeze-dried or frozen); sampling methods and analytical procedures (for an example of how much these can vary, consult table 3 (pdf)).
Consider whether the ORAC value is based on reported lipophilic as well as hydrophilic values. Lipophilic estimates allow values to be calculated for lipid-soluble carotenoids in addition to the usual water-soluble (hydrophilic) phenolics.
USDA Database 2007 also relies upon fluorescein as the fluorescent probe and deprecates the usefulness of earlier studies that relied upon B-phycoerythrin (B-PE) as the probe.
Matters also become rather more complicated when several values have to be combined from different sources.
ORAC Values are reported for hydrophilic-ORAC (H-ORAC), lipophilic-ORAC (LORAC),
total-ORAC, and total phenolics (TP). H-ORAC, L-ORAC and total-ORAC are reported in μmol of Trolox Equivalents per 100 grams (μmolTE/100 g), while TP is reported in mg gallic acid equivalents per 100 grams (mgGAE/100 g). When only an HORAC value was available for a particular food item low in fat, H-ORAC value was also utilized for the Total ORAC value. In some cases values for H-ORAC, L-ORAC and Total-ORAC may come from different sources, and the sum of the average values for HORAC and L-ORAC may not equal the value for Total-ORAC. [pg. 4 pdf, pg 2 document USDA Nutrient Database (pdf)]
 Holford was encouraging people to sign up for 100%health membership so that they might continue to read his insights and interpretations of science that we need to improve our lives so that we enjoy 100%health. He laid it on the line that such excellence has to be paid for:
My job is to help people like you become 100%healthy. I have a company called 100%health. Our mission is to make people 100%healthy. I have a team of researchers. What I do is I write a newsletter, every other month, where we keep exploring the new science to give you something that you can use in your life…That’s my job, to actually find stuff that you can use. [Join 100%health and receive my newsletter and other 100%health membership benefits like the hundreds of special reports that I’ve written.] Quite frankly, it’s the way that I support paying my research team, that’s really what it is about.
HolfordWatch wonders if it depends on whether you call a bit of Googling and text-skimming ‘research’ or think that it equates to an understanding of the science you are passing on to a wider audience. One would hope that this research team has some special understanding but, judging by the usual state of the claims in those newsletters, it doesn’t seem so; it doesn’t even look like someone vaguely brings their maths skills to bear. It’s not even as if the claims in those special reports are up to date because they just seem to be cut and pasted from his books and nobody checks that they are still relevant.
 All quotations attributed to Holford taken from notes made during his Hidden Food Allergies talk at the Allergy and Gluten Free Show 2008. As such, the transcription may not be error-free and has not been verified.