What do you think of when you think of autumn? Many people have a very visual response – leaves turning glorious colors, bright red berries, pumpkins, intense sun lower in the horizon, shorter days. If you’re a gardener or farmer of any kind, you’ll be thinking of lots of work to harvest, and preserve the harvest – and shorter days to do it in. If you are at all given to looking ahead, you’ll almost inevitably be contrasting the bright colors and abundant harvest with preparation for the more barren winter ahead. Of course, the closer to the equator you live, the less contrast there will be between seasons: perhaps you’re lucky enough to live in a place with a year-round growing season. But even in the tropics and subtropics, there is definitely a surge of growth activity in the summer, and a slowing of intensity and change of pace as the days shorten in autumn.
This month, I want to focus on the bright colors and harvesting associated with the autumn of temperate climates, and on one particular message that they offer that is a very important – as well as delicious – way to prepare for winter. I want to talk about antioxidants.
You have probably heard the advice to eat as many different-colored fruits and vegetables as possible, and that the more brightly or highly colored a natural food is (we’re not talking about M&M’s here!) the higher in health-protective antioxidants it is likely to be. There are even all kinds of supplements out there now with names like ‘Miracle Reds,’ ‘Superior Purples,’ etc. In more southerly areas, fall flourishes with figs and bright purple eggplants, and as winter draws closer, trees are festooned with persimmons like gaudy baubles. In northern climates, raspberries, blackberries, and the rest ripen in September or October – just in time to stock up on antioxidants for the winter.
Did you know that the intense bright reds, oranges and browns in the fall foliage of trees like maples come from anthocyanin, carotin and xanthophyll, all of which are also known as antioxidants in foods? That’s another association.
So, why all these cosmic messages about taking in antioxidants in autumn, preparatory for winter? Why do we need antioxidants in the winter especially?
Let’s back up for a moment and make sure we know what antioxidants are. ‘Anti’ means ‘against’ and ‘oxidant’ means ‘agent of oxidation.’ ‘Oxidation’ is essentially the breakdown or transformation of substances that takes place in the presence of oxygen – like the rusting of metal that occurs when the metal is exposed to air, or the browning of the flesh of an apple, or of guacamole. Obviously, our bodies cannot survive without oxygen. However, inside our bodies as well as outside, the presence of oxygen speeds up deterioration. Of greatest concern is that these browning, rusting, oxidation reactions in our bodies give off rogue molecules called free radicals. These free radicals can move around in the tissues, bind to other cells and form extraneous compounds unrecognized by the body. The proliferation of these compounds is associated with cancer, as well as heart disease, macular degeneration and other degenerative diseases. ‘Degenerative’ is the important word here: degeneration is a long-term breaking-down of tissues and systems in the body as a result of oxidation. However, in the short-term, this process is associated with general assaults on the immune system also.
Antioxidants are substances that work against these degenerative processes. Some are enzymes, like CoEnzyme Q10 that is such a buzzword currently because of its heart-protective properties. Others are nutritive compounds, like vitamin C, or ellagic acid (present in walnuts and in the seeds of berries) It seems that they work in two ways: they neutralize the free radicals created by oxidation (a process colorfully referred to as ‘scavenging free radicals’), and they retard the actual oxidation process.
So, when you sprinkle lemon juice on a cut apple or on guacamole to prevent browning, you are utilizing the antioxidant properties of the lemon juice – its vitamin C and other compounds. When you understand the long-term destructive effects of oxidation within your body’s system, you’ll surely be interested in doing something similar within your body too.
Back to the question of why we need antioxidants in winter especially. There are several reasons for this. First of all, in temperate climates, the days are much shorter, we get less exposure to sunlight, and therefore can manufacture less vitamin D, which is crucial for our general vitality and immunity. Second, people living in a temperate or northern climate with a barren winter have little or no access to fresh foods during long winter months. (In this month’s mid-month supplement, I’ll discuss some ways that you _can_ get fresh foods even in the winter.) During these months, supermarket produce has to come from a long way off, and even with modern improvements in shipping and storage technologies, antioxidant and other nutrient levels decrease with time and handling, so that by the time produce arrives at the store and sits there for a while, it is no longer really fresh. Fresh food is so important for maintaining a strong immune system and a good outlook on life. But much of this has to do with the perishable antioxidants in those foods. Cold also contracts muscles, darker days make it less inviting to play outside. People are often indoors in closer quarters with one another. For all these reasons, more people get sick in the wintertime. Antioxidants protect against getting sick.
Cold-climate cultures with high levels of health have traditionally made use of stored berries in the wintertime, and also of herbs and spices, both of which are higher in antioxidants than food. For traditional Native Alaskans and other subsistence dwellers in northern climates (i.e., people eating solely the produce of their own geographical area), harvesting wild berries was a tremendously important autumnal activity. As if to compensate for the long, harsh, barren winters, these climates provide a plethora of extremely high-antioxidant berries. As well as wild blueberries, currants and rose hips, there are high-bush cranberries, low-bush cranberries, also called lingonberries, crowberries, salmonberries, and more, all of them measuring high on the antioxidant scale. Some of these berries are quite sour, and the sourest ones have the highest antioxidant scores. Where a score of 40 is considered very high, lingonberries have been measured at 203!
What happens to those antioxidants when the berries are frozen, or dried, or cooked into jam or baked in a pie? Since they are such active compounds, it makes sense that they undergo changes during such processes. Cooking at high temperatures deactivates many antioxidants. Those that are enzymes will be denatured above 140 degrees F, water-soluble vitamin antioxidants like vitamin C are destroyed by heat. However, there is some controversy over how very cold temperatures affect antioxidants. Most foods that contain antioxidants contain several different kinds. There are studies that have shown that freezing or cold-temperature storage will reduce the activity of one antioxidant but increase that of another, so that overall, the food has the same total antioxidant level. Is this as beneficial as the ratio offered in the food’s original form? We do not know yet. But the good news is, at least it now seems that respectable amounts of antioxidants survive freezing, when it used to be thought that they were mostly destroyed.
Sometimes, there is a trade-off in processing. When very sour berries like lingonberries – or, from another climate, acerola berries – are concentrated into juice and then cooked into syrup, the cooking will greatly reduce the antioxidant level, but the concentration into juice of what was already a very-high-antioxidant food will have made the level so high that the resulting product will still be high in certain antioxidants, although it may be completely devoid of the enzymatic ones and of vitamin C.
The message here is: you will still get antioxidants from eating processed forms of these foods, but you won’t be getting the full spectrum that the fresh form provides. Of all the preservation methods, gentle freeze-drying seems to provide the least disruption to the original profile. Regular freezing will lose you the vitamin C but keep most everything else. High-temperature cooking will make the greatest difference.
If you want to avoid high-temperature processing, there are many easy and delectable recipes for raw pies using fresh or frozen berries. And you can actually make a delicious jam by processing two cups of fresh or frozen berries with a cup of dried figs, dates or raisins, which also contain antioxidants. This jam is a delightful spread, a concentration of antioxidants, without the need to resort to masses of refined sugar and high-temperature processing. Berries, especially, contain so much natural pectin that they need little encouragement to gel into a ‘jam.’
So, when you look at the spectacular colors of fall’s foliage, feel the days getting shorter and the chill entering the air, remember your antioxidants and the delicious ways to incorporate them. In my article two months ago, I pointed out that fall itself is a time of new beginning ( as exemplified by Jewish New Year and the start of the school year). Whereas spring is a renewal of life after getting through the winter’s lean times, autumn is a time of appreciating the abundance of the year’s growth, of reflecting on all that growth and looking ahead to where it will lead. To your health!