It’s Friday night. You’ve had a long week. That first glass of wine (ok, fine, maybe two glasses) went down pretty quickly. You would like another, but you don’t want to feel like a lush. Thus, you begin the mental gymnastics of justifying the next glass.
“I deserve it after this week.”
“If I don’t drink it now it will just go bad.”
“I don’t think I got all the flavor notes on the first glass.”
And then you land on antioxidants. Ah, yes, those things in wine that are good for you because...look, they’re just good for you, ok? Pass the wine.
If this inner monologue sounds familiar to you, we have at least one piece of good news. Yes, antioxidants are good for you. But just how many antioxidants are in wine? Or chocolate? Or coffee or other vices that we want to feel better about consuming? And what, exactly, are antioxidants and why are they good for us?
Cole Adam, a Registered Dietician in the Denver area, explains.
“Antioxidants are nutrients in food that can protect us from oxidative stress, which results from our own metabolism, but also certain unwanted environmental exposures,” he says.
Sunburns, exposure to cigarette smoke, regular day-to-day activity and many other stresses on the body can create oxidative stress, which causes cellular damage.
“When we have too much oxidative stress, it can cause damage on a cellular level,” says Adam.
In turn, this can lead to a number of diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer. Antioxidants help neutralize some of the oxidative stress that can lead to these conditions. Plant-based foods in particular are often rich sources of antioxidants.
Berries, nuts, seeds, spices and herbs, and vegetables are foods that are consistently high in antioxidants.
But what about the “good stuff?” What about the story you saw on coffee helping to prevent diabetes? Or the story detailing the 10 (10!) ways chocolate can benefit your health?
“People like to hear good news about their bad habits, and the media knows that,” says Adam. “They love click-bait headlines that boast about the health benefits of chocolate or red wine.”
The truth lies somewhere between “Chocolate and wine can cure the top five most deadly diseases” and “A berry-only diet is the only path to a long and healthy life.” Trust us, we were hoping for the former, but let’s take an honest look at the antioxidant levels of some of our favorite vices that we like to think of as pseudo health foods.
Chocolate. The treat you always have stocked in your desk drawer “just in case.” The ingredient that comes in four different forms on a single cake. It makes pretzels, almonds, cherries and strawberries better.
So, can it really be all these things and good for you? Too good to be true? Actually, yes. Or at least it’s not that simple.
To start, let’s inspect the three forms of the cacao bean, from which all chocolate is made:
Cacao Powder: This is the cacao bean minus the fat. It’s the healthiest, purest form of chocolate and ranks pretty high on the list of all foods in terms of antioxidant content. But for most people, it probably tastes pretty bitter. It’s not what you typically think of as a nice chocolate treat. Adam recommends using it for baking or adding to smoothies for a healthyish chocolate kick.
He makes a vegan chocolate milkshake that can be the healthy alternative to the Wendy’s classic.
Cocoa Powder: Very similar to cacao powder in spelling and most other ways. Heating the cacao bean at a higher temperature creates cocoa powder. This extra processing also reduces the antioxidant count. Cocoa powder is commonly used in dessert recipes.
Other Forms: Candy bars. Cakes. Syrup. Ice cream. You know, the delicious stuff. But in terms of health, the further you get from the pure cacao powder the lower the antioxidant count. Milk chocolate, cake, cookies and the like tend to include milk, sugar and many other ingredients that make it sweeter, but dilute cacao’s benefits.
“The detrimental effects caused by the added sugar and fat far outweigh the small health benefits associated with the trace amount of cacoa in these products,” says Adam.
A general rule: The darker the chocolate the better it will be for you. Many chocolate bars now show the percentage of cacao powder in the bar, and the higher the percentage the higher the antioxidant content.
Adam suggests trying to start around 70 percent and go higher as you can handle it. Your tastebuds will likely adjust. And no, you should not start eating a chocolate bar a day just to speed up this process. Sorry. Adam says he worked his way up the scale and now prefers a 95 percent cacao chocolate.
So, chocolate is still a treat to enjoy occasionally, but the more pure cacao forms will give you a nice antioxidant punch.
We’ll cut the field in half and simplify the discussion to start: white wine doesn’t provide many antioxidants. Red wine is the healthier option. It’s not an antioxidant rockstar, but similar to some fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, prunes and chiles on a per 100 gram basis.
But it’s important to remember that wine and foods such as fruits and vegetables are not both in the “more is better” category. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recommends one glass of wine a day no more than five days a week for women, and two glasses of wine a day, nor more than five days a week for men for low-risk drinking. Going above these suggestions regularly puts you at higher risk for a number of diseases and accidents. There are no such similar warnings for bell peppers or blueberries.
“I wouldn’t encourage anyone to start drinking because of the antioxidants,” says Adam. “A better step would be eating those foods rich in antioxidants.”
Coffee is one of the biggest sources of antioxidants we have. While that may sound like great news for us coffee addicts, it’s based more on total volume than pure antioxidant content. Per 100 grams, brewed coffee is similar to red wine. But because we as a country drink a lot of coffee on a fairly regular basis it ends up being one of the largest and most consistent sources of antioxidants.
“Coffee in and of itself is a pretty healthy beverage from what we know,” says Adam. “The thing you have to be careful about is what you add to it. Tons of sugar and cream is going to attenuate any health benefits you’re going to get from coffee.”
Coffee, wine and chocolate shouldn’t be your “go-tos” for fighting oxidative stress, but for something that feels like a treat, they are about as healthy as you can get in terms of antioxidant content. But pretty much everything you have in your spice rack has 10 to 20 times the antioxidant content.
“If I had to plot them on a traffic light with green being good, red being bad and yellow being neutral, they’re all kind of yellowish, greenish foods,” Adam says of coffee, red wine and dark chocolate.
He doesn’t like the phrase “everything in moderation” when it comes to food because we usually only apply it to unhealthy food. As he notes, “we never talk about broccoli in moderation.” But these truly are foods you should consume in moderation.
“A cup of coffee a day without going overboard on extras,” says Adam. “A little bit of dark chocolate here and there. A little bit of red wine with dinner or if you’re out with friends, but don’t overdo it.”