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ORAC: Not the Whole Story

By Alan Richman | March 1, 2010

Experts explore the utility of ORAC in today’s antioxidant market.

These days, many ingredient and finished product manufacturers like to tout the ORAC scores registered by their favorite antioxidant source. Tempted as buyers may be to just glom onto the item with the highest score, they probably should not. According to various experts, although ORAC is a useful gauge of in vitro antioxidant power, this may not necessarily translate into what is happening in the user’s body.
Piscataway, NJ-based Sabinsa, for example, acknowledges that ORAC and its offspring create a bewildering array of acronyms for consumers to sort out. Among the various assays now being used are the following: HORAC (hydroxyl radical), NORAC (nitroperoxyl radical), and SOAC (singlet oxygen quenching). Other methods include TRAP (total radical trapping), FRAP (ferric reduction in plasma) and 2, 2’-diphenyl-l-picrylhydrazyl (DPPH). Sabinsa points out that results from various assays do not necessarily correlate. On a hopeful note, it suggests that recent trends in research evaluate cellular antioxidant potential, which researchers believe can be correlated with in vivo activity.
James Perin, MD, CEO of Blue Wave Industries, an Orange Park, FL-based research and testing facility, who does work for nutrition industry clients, says, “The antioxidant category struggles with reliance on poor testing models (like ORAC), which have limited information on how the tested molecule will function within the human body (or cell), but give a ‘number’ that claims are then made against. This is one reason why our company is working on new tests that have better accuracy and are inexpensive enough so companies can have them performed on their products with good data for documentation and distribution.”
Cal Bewicke of Ethical Naturals, San Anselmo, CA, says he sees “a lot of confusion and claims in respect to ORAC values.” He professes to favor the new Total ORAC FN protocol developed and patented by Brunswick Labs, Norton, MA. “This is really the basis for how these values should be tested, stated and compared,” he asserts.
Hartley Pond, vice president of technical sales for Momence, IL-based FutureCeuticals, scolds the industry for “the extent to which the benefits of antioxidants have been in many cases exaggerated by irresponsible marketing.”
While acknowledging that the ORAC assay is a very valuable tool for researchers and the antioxidant industry, Mr. Pond adds, “It is not the end of the story. The race to have the highest ORAC product on the market does our industry and the consumer a disservice. Having a high ORAC product does not by itself signal efficacy, but provides the antioxidant capacity of a product ex vivo. Being able to show that an antioxidant product is both bioavailable and possesses a specific bio-activity such as the down regulation of an enzyme closely associated with inflammation and specific health concerns is where we in the antioxidant industry need to focus our efforts.”
Mr. Pond also highlights another issue with the ORAC assay: vegetables typically have a very low ORAC level when compared to fruits. “Does this make broccoli less valuable than açai?” he asks. Mr. Pond’s point is that the ORAC assay does not treat all antioxidants equally and that antioxidants found in vegetables, such as sulforaphane in broccoli, operate on different pathways than high polyphenol fruits that typically provide a high ORAC score.
Richard Passwater, PhD, vice president of research and development for Leonia, NJ-based Solgar, suggests that the “limitations of ORAC are beginning to be understood.” Do the antioxidant nutrients become altered during the absorption process? Are the antioxidants nutrients well absorbed and are they very bioavailable?
“ORAC has several problems,” Dr. Passwater says. “It has been designed more for measuring the antioxidant values of individual compounds against one or two free radicals. Real life situations involve a plethora of free radicals and mixed compounds. Ever wonder why fruit juices score much higher than complex foods? Now ORAC tests have improved to measure the effect against more free radicals, but the value is still not very meaningful for complex mixtures, nor for what is actually happening within the body.” What is needed, says the Solgar executive, are improved measurements, such as the Certified Bioavailability Program developed by NIS Labs in Klamath Falls, OR. “This,” he says, “is designed to measure antioxidant effect in humans—not a theoretical value in a test tube.”

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