The ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) method was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and has recently gained leverage in the dietary supplement industry.
The increasing proliferation of ORAC values when discussing antioxidants has both positive and negative consequences. Unfortunately, although it can be quite helpful, it’s also causing some confusion, which antioxidant expert Ginny Bank dispels in this interview.
Ms. Bank began her career as a natural products chemist with Hauser Inc., a research and development company which focused on natural product extracts and purified plant compounds. She has researched and developed plant-based functional ingredients for nutritional supplement applications for over 15 years.
Ms. Bank is currently a Scientific Adviser for RFI LLC and President and Founder of Full Spectrum Consulting, a natural products consulting firm specializing in research, product development, quality management and technical marketing for the nutraceutical and food.
In all likelihood you've heard of the term ORAC by now. It stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity and is used to describe the antioxidant potency of a food product or supplement. Unfortunately, if used incorrectly, ORAC values can confuse rather than enlighten you about the antioxidant value of a food or product.
I recently spoke with Ginny Bank, an industry expert in antioxidant research who holds four US patents pertaining to antioxidants and their applications, who explains ORAC and its proper use, shedding light on the ways you may be mislead by less scrupulous companies.
There are several methods available that companies can use to measure or determine how well an antioxidant works, but ORAC is more or less the gold standard. It's a very good, validated method – if used correctly.
"One of the things that it's great for is for quality control," Ginny says. "It is really important, if you are a manufacturer buying raw material, that you know the material you buy is consistent. One of the ways to do that is ORAC.
That's great for the consumer who can be sure that, if you're guaranteeing an ORAC value on the product, the product is always going to have the same [consistent] antioxidant potency."
How the ORAC Method was Developed, and How Changes to the Process Can be Used to Mislead You
When the ORAC method was initially developed, the USDA used natural products as the reference standard. They tested 20 to 40 different fruits and vegetables and published the ORAC values of these fruit and vegetables. It was done per gram and the data was available to the public.
Hence you could look it up and see that a gram of broccoli had a certain value, for example, and one serving of broccoli weighs 148 grams, therefore the ORAC value of a serving of broccoli could be easily calculated.
It offered a tangible way for the consumer to calculate how many servings of a particular fruit or vegetable they needed to consume in order to get a certain amount of antioxidants (ORAC value).
However, in 2001 the ORAC method was improved upon because it wasn't very reproducible, meaning it was difficult to repeat the test and obtain ORAC values that were within an acceptable range of standard deviation.
The USDA started using a synthetic reference standard and changed the method to make it more reproducible. However, when they changed the standard reference product from a natural to a synthetic one, the ORAC values obtained increased quite dramatically.
The new method, which is being validated by an industry organization called the AOCS (American Oil Chemists' Society) is currently the only method used when measuring ORAC.
However, the data published in the 90s using the old method is still widely used as comparison tool, which leaves plenty of room for companies to mislead you without outright lying.
This can make one food appear to have a vastly higher ORAC value than another, simply because it's ORAC was measured using the new method while being compared to a food with an ORAC score obtained using the old method.
As Ginny says, "It's not even comparing apples to oranges. It's comparing apples to eggs."
What this means is that in order for a food manufacturer to be able to substantiate their antioxidant claims, they must compare ORAC scores obtained through the same, new method. Unfortunately, many companies are not doing this. They're comparing their food's new ORAC score to old ones, falsely making their product appear superior.
"It's almost become like horse race," Ginny says. "Like who has the greater number of fruits and vegetable antioxidant equivalent that they can claim on their label. If you're using the correct method, and you're comparing it to data from the correct method, you're at a disadvantage.
I feel like it's important that the industry as a whole come together to market this correctly. Otherwise, the use of ORAC is just going to become a marketing tool rather than a good science tool that it is."
When, or even if, those industry changes will take place remains to be seen… In the meantime, you can become a better educated consumer by realizing that this misleading technique is being used.
Avoiding being deceived will require you to investigate a company's claims a bit further, but at least you won't be misled by companies who use the old data for comparison.
How the Data is Presented Can Also Lead You Astray
You also need to be aware of the fact that the ORAC data can also be presented in such a way as to further confuse consumers.
Technically the data may be correct, but it can be manipulated in such a way as to deceive those who are not paying very close attention.
"Oftentimes, things are reported in either no unit (just an ORAC value), or they change the units.
For instance, usually, in research, you report an ORAC value per gram material.
Here is an example of some of the manipulation: a product that's reporting 1,275 ORAC units per 5 grams, because that's the serving size [1 serving = 5 grams]… and then they compare it to... the ORAC value for the fruits and vegetables in 'per gram'…
[I]t's really misleading to say, my five gram product has so much more than these fruits and vegetables, but not show in the graph that those vegetable and fruit numbers are actually only per gram.
If they're going to be comparing it to fruits and vegetables, it should be per serving."
Another example is to not use units at all.
"You've got companies saying, I have 17,000 ORAC units, and having a graph that's got this big bar," Ginny says, "but they never tell you what the units are. Well, it turns out, that's per liter. You have to drink a liter of this material to get the 17,000 ORAC units, [but] their serving size is one ounce."
Logically, you need to know how many units of the product you have to consume in order to get a particular ORAC value, and you must compare it to the same number of units of another product to discern which has the higher ORAC status.
How Do You Know You're Getting the ORAC Value Listed on the Label?
The ORAC method is a valuable test, but as a consumer it's important to realize that there's great variability between the old method and the new method, and that there are ways to manipulate the data.
It's also important to realize that some companies do not test their product on a continual basis. They may test the ORAC once, put that score on the label, and never test again. This is more or less legal, but not necessarily ethical.
Because many antioxidant products, especially supplements, are derived from natural raw materials such as plants and berries, for example. Each new batch or lot of raw material will therefore contain natural variations, not just in color and taste, but also in antioxidant value.
So what can you do to ensure you're getting the stated amount of antioxidants?
You'll have to do the due diligence.
- Is the company abiding by legal standards?
- Can they produce the data and the sources of that data?
But how would you go about confirming that a company's ORAC claim is accurate?
Ginny offers the following advice:
- Look for the statement "Guaranteed ORAC value" on the package.
- Make sure an actual ORAC value is stated on the label. Many companies will just state, "This contains equal antioxidant potency as six servings of fruits and vegetables." Unless they're giving you a number, you don't know what they're comparing to, so avoid products that do not state the ORAC value.
- Also look for the ORAC value in the supplement facts panel. The company is more than likely testing every lot if the value is stated in the supplement facts panel.
Tips on How to Do Your Own Investigation Into Company Claims
Recent changes to the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) guidelines and the labeling requirements makes it easier for consumers to investigate company claims as companies are now required to list their phone number and website on every label.
Most reputable companies also have extensive web sites today, which you can peruse to further evaluate their claims.
Another tip is to check whether the company has published their data in peer-reviewed journals. Some of the best companies have done so.
When calling the company directly, some of the questions you may want to ask would include:
- Do you test the ORAC value of each lot?
- Who does your testing? (There are only a few labs in the country that do ORAC testing. If they do their own testing, it's a sign that they've made a large investment and take it seriously as the equipment costs anywhere from $30,000 to $80,000.)
- Ask for a specification sheet ('spec sheet'), or the Certificate of Analysis, known as the 'C of A'. These are documents that itemize every single test that the final product gets tested for. If ORAC is on the C of A, then you know the company is looking at ORAC every time they make the product.
For More Information
These are some of the tools you can use to make sure you're not being hoodwinked by a company with few scruples.
Ginny is clearly an expert in this area, and I urge you to listen to the entire interview, or read through the transcript, for even more information about the broader biological value of antioxidants and the differences between various types of antioxidants.
In this interview, Ginny also discusses free radicals – what they are, how they work, and the different types of free radicals.
In addition, she explains how you can actually increase free radical damage when exercising if you're not also getting the right nutrients, and how individual differences can influence which antioxidants are best suited for you.