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ORAC's tarnished reputation doesn't diminish polyphenols' health benefits, expert says

By Hank Schultz , 24-Jun-2013
Last updated the 24-Jun-2013 at 20:42 GMT

It has been almost a year since United States Department of Agriculture took down its ORAC database.  Now that this official reference point is gone, does this measure of antioxidant potential still have relevance in the marketplace?

Absolutely, says Brad Evers, director of marketing at FutureCeuticals, a Momence, IL-based company that markets a variety of antioxidant ingredients sourced from berries, coffee fruit and pomegranate.

“In vitro ORAC measurement represents one of the first scientific attempts to quantify potential antioxidant value among foods, and has served its purpose well in aiding the consumer, the scientific community, and industry in understanding these relative potentials,” Evers told NutraIngredients-USA.

Misunderstood and misused

But Evers’ said he agreed with some of the criticisms the USDA gave as reasons for ending the database.  The agency said the values indicating antioxidant capacity have no relevance to the effects of specific bioactive compounds, including polyphenols on human health.  And it said that ORAC values are routinely misused by food and dietary supplement manufacturing companies to promote their products and by consumers to guide their food and dietary supplement choices.

“ORAC continues to drive sales but informed consumers and the greater scientific community are increasingly and justifiably skeptical of any claims solely based on in vitro ORAC values.  There is no substantial link to human health and, in particular, health conditions associated with oxidative stress that can be directly attributed to ORAC values alone. FutureCeuticals has always taken this position,” he said.

Properly used, the measure is an important tool for researchers and industry, including when assessing the performance of antioxidant ingredients in a straight food preservative situation.

"There is no question that ORAC has been a useful tool for knowledgeable food scientists. It is what tipped me off to look at acai fruit in 1995... Properly used, it can be very useful. Misuse in advertising and marketing violates a key tenet of DSHEA - be truthful and not-misleading," said Alex Schauss, PhD FACN, CFS of scientific and regulatory consultancy AIBMR. “I would not say ORAC is routinely misused, [although] a few companies do [misuse the data].

Meanwhile, ORAC “can be an excellent method for quality assurance purposes”, he said. “A number of companies use it to test raw materials.”

Developing science

ORAC science continues to develop, Evers said. Regardless of how the value may or may not have been overhyped or otherwise misused, there is a developing understanding of the true and measurable effect on human health.

“The ORAC measure is simply one available tool available to measure the relative antioxidant potential of various fruits and vegetables as they compare to one another.  It is in no way meant to be a measure of, or predictive of, any beneficial antioxidant value in the human body,” Evers said.

“Dose response and bioavailability are critical keys to having a proper understanding of any antioxidant value and, more importantly, any activity of a product in vivo.

“We are using short-term (acute) dose response studies in order to substantiate bioavailability either directly by quantitative analytical procedures, or indirectly by function, as observed under properly controlled conditions in the acute setting, as is appropriate for natural products,” he said.

The does response issue is critical, Evers said.  Research done by FutureCeuticals contines to show bell shaped curves, in which certain compounds actually become pro oxidative at higher dosages.  It’s all part of the work that will move antioxidant science beyond the realm of measurements of raw potential in the form of ORAC values toward a deeper understanding of how these compounds support human health.

“A new day is dawning on our understanding of ORAC, antioxidants and free radicals, and how they may relate to human health.  During the last 3 years, our research has been rapidly progressing in this area.  We all owe a debt of gratitude for how our understanding of fruit and vegetable potential has been enhanced by the development of the ORAC testing by the dedicated scientists who have labored to bring us this far. That said, we are certainly at the beginning of a new area of understanding regarding the health benefits of fruits and vegetables,” he said.

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