Only in the last 20 years have natural antioxidants in our foods been studied closely by medical science and evidence is growing daily supporting their importance in preventing disease! They work by helping to reduce harmful levels of oxidants in the body, some of which can damage our cells and occasionally our DNA (potentially causing cancer or genetic mutation).
Vitamin C is an example of an antioxidant that humans (unlike many other animals) are unable to make in their bodies; so we must maintain a regular intake through food or supplements. Lutein is similar because it is synthesized only by plants, therefore we need to know which foods to include in our diet to supply our needs.
Is it really true that carrots can help you see in the dark? – well, it’s possible: Apparently, yellow carrots in particular have a high level of lutein so they could improve your eye function, especially in dim light! lutein is often paired with Zeaxanthin, another antioxidant that benefits the eyes.
Kale, turnip greens, collards (loose leaf greens), spinach, Swiss chard, broccoli, eggs, corn, lettuce, peas, Brussels sprouts, green beans, watercress, zucchini. It’s clear from looking at this list that “eating your greens” makes more sense than ever!
These foods are best eaten either raw (where reasonable) or lightly cooked (steaming is ideal), as the Lutein levels tend to reduce with cooking. Raw brassicas should be kept to only a few servings per month as they have been shown to suppress thyroid function in larger amounts. There is some debate about cooking vegetables and whether it helps the body to absorb the nutrients – there are no hard and fast rules but some foods are clearly easier to digest after cooking. If you are not used to raw foods in your diet it would be unhealthy to increase your intake suddenly as the digestion would not be able to cope! Brassicas have also shown positive effects against cancer, particularly of the stomach and lungs.
I haven’t mentioned the plant with the highest lutein content yet because it is not generally grown for food – it is the yellow flowered garden nasturtium (Tropaeolum Majus), which has a peppery taste and both the leaves and flowers can be eaten, perfect for adding some bright colour, lutein and beneficial beta-carotene to your salads!
There’s another reason to grow nasturtiums too – they have a good reputation as companion plants, repelling some pests and attracting predatory insects to your garden. They can distract cabbage white butterflies from your brassicas so you may have to sacrifice some of your nasturtium plants for this purpose!
Final note, for best lutein intake, consume raw, organic veggies from the chart. Raw kale contains almost 2x the amount that is in cooked kale – and new science has also confirmed that organic veg are much higher in antioxidants than non-organic (as well as having less pesticides!)