It Doesn't Add Up

December 17, 2009
Jennifer Grebow
Jennifer Grebow

Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.

When the developers of the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) test created the method of measuring the antioxidant capacity of nutritional ingredients, it's difficult to say whether they could have imagined the marketing power it would come to hold.

When the developers of the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) test created the method of measuring the antioxidant capacity of nutritional ingredients, it's difficult to say whether they could have imagined the marketing power it would come to hold.

"When we started working on it 10 years ago, ORAC was simply meant to be a way to quantify the antioxidants in a fruit, vegetable, or other nutritional ingredient," says Jim Nichols.

Nichols is president and an owner of Brunswick Laboratories (Norton, MA). Together with Dr. Ronald Prior of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Brunswick helped to develop the original ORAC assay-as well as its successor, Total ORAC, which measures an ingredient's antioxidant activity against five free radicals: hydroxyl, peroxyl, peroxynitrite, singlet oxygen, and superoxide anion. These five represent the "lion's share" of free radicals found in humans.

The problem with ORAC today is that some marketers-knowingly or unknowingly-misleadingly imply that the higher an ORAC score, the more effective an ingredient is as an antioxidant in the human body.

However, says Nichols, "ORAC is only what we call the input side of the equation. So, we can use it to measure what one is consuming in regards to antioxidant capacity. But as far as the output and the wellness that an ingredient actually achieves, there are other tests that need to be run."

Simply put, in order to prove how effective an antioxidant will be once in the body, clinical tests need to be run to determine its actual biological effects. Despite this crucial fact, the misleading use of ORAC in advertising continues to grow. "ORAC in itself has become a brand," says Nichols.

And consumers have now latched onto the ORAC marketing story. "I think the ORAC story has gotten so comfortable for consumers that they just buy products, without a lot of question," says Nichols.

"Consumers have started thinking of ORAC as a perfect and complete measure of antioxidant capacity," says David Bell, founder of Bell Advisory Services (North Dartmouth, MA). "But you can never look at an ORAC value and think that it's a complete picture of antioxidant protection."

Marketers today tend to compare different ingredients' ORAC values. "People are using ORAC numbers as a way of bludgeoning other products," says Bell.

"It's easy for a marketer to make such general statements as, 'Acai [has] an ORAC value that is X times higher than blueberries,'" says Cal Bewicke, president of Ethical Naturals Inc. (San Anselmo, CA). "Under certain circumstances, that may be true. However, there are many factors that contribute to the final ORAC value of an actual product-primarily, the way it has been processed and concentrated."

Some marketers may even "borrow" another company's ORAC numbers for their own ingredients, without doing any actual testing themselves. Or, says Bell, "they may use the USDA's ORAC data and try to do a 'back-of-the-envelope' calculation about what that means for their product."

The only way a company can truly determine its product's ORAC value (ORAC value alone, and not its biological antioxidant value) is to have the product tested-and by a reputable laboratory.

ORAC testing also needs to be done often, because processing and growing conditions can affect an ingredient's antioxidant levels. Geography is one example of a determining factor. A blueberry grown in extreme weather conditions will often build up a higher level of antioxidants to protect itself than a blueberry grown in more-temperate regions. Organic fruits or vegetables may also have higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally grown crop.

Frequent testing must also be done, because antioxidant levels can vary by crop season, from lot to lot, and from supplier to supplier, says Nichols. For reasons such as those, Brunswick's certified-ORAC program requires product testing a minimum of four times a year.

When comparing ORAC values, it's also important to test similar product entities, says Annie Eng, president of HP Ingredients (Bradenton, FL). "You need to compare fruit to fruit, extract to extract, and juice to juice," she says.

Finally, it's important to be specific when making ORAC claims. For instance, it's useful to specify which free radicals an ingredient is good at quenching. Also, it's important to let customers know what serving size a company is basing its ORAC claim on. "Marketers [may] deceive customers by expressing ORAC value per container," says Bewicke. "ORAC values are based on a per-gram scale."

Despite what marketers should be doing, many, unfortunately, are not. Some unknowingly misuse ORAC claims, while others are plain sneaky.

"We've seen it happen where companies have spiked their product to increase the ORAC number by adding less-expensive, high-antioxidant compounds such as vitamin C or grape-seed extract," says Nichols. "These are all very legitimate and good compounds, but if a company is advertising its product as being high in acai when in fact its high ORAC number is coming from other sources, that's misleading."

Eng says that some companies may assume that if an ingredient's ORAC level is very high, "they can use less of it and still have an effective product, but that's completely not true."

Many hope that the use of ORAC becomes more standardized one day. "It is not the method, but the improper use of ORAC results that leads to confusion," says Bell.

"Right now, ORAC means so many different things to so many people," adds Karen Todd, RD, director of marketing for Kyowa Hakko USA (New York City). "It's not comparing apples to apples. Everyone [needs to be] on the same page."

She also adds that companies and customers must remember that ORAC does not tell the whole nutrition story. "So when a company bases its entire marketing plan on ORAC value, you're missing a whole other segment of the story."

When all is said and done, and considering all the ways in which it is misused, is ORAC still a valuable tool? In the sense that it helps companies learn more about their ingredients, it is. "It's absolutely a valuable tool so that you know what you're putting in your product, and at what level," says Nichols. "It's still a gold standard for that purpose."

ORAC is also useful, he says, for indicating early on whether an ingredient has a high antioxidant capacity, so that a company can decide whether to then pursue biological testing. Brunswick Laboratories has even developed cell-culture in vitro tests, so that companies can get an early sign of how an antioxidant might perform in the body-digestion, gut microflora, metabolism, and other in vivo factors aside.

ORAC will remain a gold standard as long as companies do not abuse its credibility. "If people continue marketing ORAC to be more than it is, it will eventually come off in an unfavorable light," says Nichols. "Eventually the consumer is going to be wise and say, 'Why the heck am I taking this stuff? Where is the evidence that it works?'"

Those customers may be angry if they are paying premium prices for products claiming to be effective antioxidants in the body. "They may end up being economically burned," says Anthony Almada, president and chief scientific officer of ImagiNutrition Inc. (Laguna Niguel, CA).

"Some of the highest ORAC-value ingredients are those extracts made from grape seeds and skins; not a glamorous superfruit," says Bewicke. However, he says, marketers may turn away from those ingredients because superfruits' marketing status may fetch a higher price.

Also, says Bell, as marketers continually look for the next superfruit star, they should be aware that there's a limit to how high ORAC values will go. Berries that are dark and rich in color and grown in extreme environments tend to have some of the highest ORAC values. Therefore, marketers aren't going to find ingredients that are astronomically higher than those, "unless you're digging them out from under the South Pole."

Nevertheless, with more consumers now looking for ORAC numbers on a label, we shouldn't expect to see the usage of ORAC claims to end any time soon. Almada says that brands may also feel pressured to advertise ORAC numbers. "They're almost enslaved to use it, because if they don't, the consumer or the retailer will ask, 'Well, what's your ORAC score?' They're pushed into a corner."