Whey Protein Overview

There is a lot of confusion about protein in general and about whey protein in particular. You can read about different protein types (soy, whey, casein) in an earlier blog and watch a short video overview

What is Whey Protein?

Whey protein is the highest quality dietary protein source and is used in most protein supplement  shakes.  Whey is a dairy protein that is a by-product of cheese production.  Whey has a high biological value (BV) – meaning that the amino acid ratio is perfectly proportioned to be used by the body and in building/maintaining muscle.  In particular, whey protein is very high in the amino acid Leucine, which serves as an important signal for both protein synthesis in the muscles (building and maintaining lean muscle tissue) and appetite control in the brain. There are many different versions of whey protein that are used in products today, each with its own purpose and its own price tag.  In its raw state, whey contains substantial amounts of fat and lactose, which can be reduced or removed using  a variety of filtration techniques.

Concentrates and Isolates and Hydrolysates – Oh My!

Whey can be filtered and concentrated to varying degrees to remove more or less fat/sugar. Higher degrees of filtration and purification can yield a “concentrate” (typically 70-80% protein) or an “isolate” (typically 90-95% protein). Whey Protein Isolates (WPI) are more pure (and more expensive) sources of protein. WPI is often considered to be a “cleaner” source of protein because it is almost pure protein – allowing formulators to add as much or as little additional fat and carbohydrates as they wish to achieve specific nutrient targets.  Whey Protein Concentrates (WPC) are still excellent sources of protein, but because they are less purified compared to the isolates, often contain appreciable amounts of lactose and fat. Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH) is an isolate (WPI) that has been “hydrolyzed” – a process that uses enzymes to split the proteins into smaller chains of amino acids (peptides). This hydrolysis process mimics our own digestive actions, so it can be said that hydrolyzed protein is “pre-digested” for more rapid absorption than native non-hydrolyzed proteins.

Sometimes Speed Makes a Difference

In essence, hydrolyzed whey protein isolate (WPH) is the “fastest” source of high-quality protein available today – but do you always need the “speed” of WPH? Sometime yes – and sometimes no. For example, numerous studies have shown that whey protein (whether provided as WPC, WPI or WPH) exerts satiating effects (control appetite), maintains muscle mass, and reduces body fat more effectively than other sources of protein. Part of the appetite-controlling benefits of whey protein is due to an enhanced secretion of gut neuropeptides including cholecystokinin (CCK) and glucagon-like peptide (GLP-1). Research has shown that an “extensively-hydrolyzed” whey protein (providing 30-40% as di- and tri-peptides) can reach the bloodstream within 15-30 minutes. Because WPH is digested and absorbed faster from the gastrointestinal system, and reaches the bloodstream, muscles, and brain faster than any other protein source, it makes sense to focus on WPH as your source of whey protein when you need fast delivery – such as during workouts (for muscle benefits) and between meals (for appetite control).

What to Look for in a Whey Protein Supplement

The “sweet-spot” for optimal whey protein supplementation is to consume 10-20 grams of whey-derived protein per meal/snack. At the lower end of the range (10g) you get enough whey peptides and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs including leucine) to stimulate muscle maintenance (during weight loss) and to curb appetite – so immediately pre-workout and between meals is the best time to use a 10g serving and it’s best to get those 10g primarily from the fastest type – Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH). At the higher end of the range (20g) you deliver the optimal amount of leucine (3g) to fully stimulate protein synthesis for muscle building/repair and you reach the maximal secretion of gut-peptides for controlling appetite and enhancing weight loss – and either concentrate (WPC) or isolate (WPI) will adequately meet those needs.

About the Author: Dr. Shawn Talbott holds a MS in exercise science (UMass Amherst) and a PhD in nutritional biochemistry (Rutgers). He is also a graduate of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Master’s Program (EMP) and has formulated a wide range of protein supplements for numerous nutrition companies. As an avid ultramarathoner and Ironman triathlete, he drinks protein shakes as a regular part of his workouts and nutrition regimen. 

Should You Use Energy Drinks?

There is no denying that energy drinks are popular – Americans consume nearly $8 billion dollars of Red Bull, Rockstar, Monster and related beverages every year. Numerous media reports have called energy drinks “useless” to “dangerous” (including the popular Dr. Oz Show, on which I’ve appeared as a guest and which I consult with from time to time on segments related to dietary supplements). 

Although most energy drinks are little more than flavored caffeine/sugar concoctions, some products are striking out in new directions to deliver the energy boost that tired consumers are craving without the sugary side effects. As a nutritionist, I’m often conflicted when I’m asked if energy drinks are “safe” for kids (they are – if you choose intelligently) or whether they’re “healthy” to consume on a daily basis (most are certainly not, but some newer options are coming close).

Sugar Rush

All of the mainstream energy drinks deliver 3-4 grams of sugar per ounce – so for drinks ranging from 8 to 20 ounces, you’re looking at a massive dose of 25-80 grams of sugar. Your typical 12-ounce Coke packs 39 grams of sugar per can (almost 10 teaspoons of sugar and 160 calories). The sugar-free versions aren’t much better because you’re trading your sugar rush for a range of artificial sweeteners that often can only trick your brain and taste buds temporarily (you’re appetite is likely to increase significantly in the evening after having consumed an artificially-sweetened beverage earlier in the day – so you end up consuming those “missing” sugar calories later anyway – more on this delayed appetite effect of artificial sweeteners in a future blog).

Palatinose is a brand name of isomaltulose – a unique natural sugar that is absorbed about 50% slower than regular sugar (sucrose). This makes isomaltulose a “low glycemic” type of sugar that is less likely to result in the “spikes” of blood glucose that are common with traditional energy drinks. Isomaltulose is a form of sucrose (cane sugar) that has been naturally fermented in a way that slows its rate of absorption (which is good for energy levels, brain function, and fat-burning). For example, consuming an energy drink sweetened with sugar or high fructose corn syrup is likely to result in a fast rise in blood glucose (and a resulting spike in energy levels and rapid drop in fat-burning), but is also likely to result (about 90 minutes later) in a fast drop in blood glucose levels and a corresponding fall in mental and physical energy levels.

Caffeine Connection

Most mainstream soft drinks and energy drinks use synthetic caffeine added at 50-200mg per can to their high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors – not a very appetizing brew (5-Hour Energy has 207mg, Red Bull has 80mg, Coke has 35mg, and a typical coffee has 100mg). This level of caffeine has been shown to improve subjective feelings of physical energy, mental focus, and reaction time, alertness, and overall cognitive performance. A handful of studies have also demonstrated an improvement in energy expenditure (burning more calories) as well as improved physical performance in both sprint and endurance events.

Clearly, there is a short-term benefit of energy drinks on various aspects of mental and physical performance – but what about the long-term health effects? It’s obvious that high doses of sugar are detrimental to health in myriad ways from insulin overload to outright addiction. Caffeine overdoses are associated with elevated stress responses, higher blood pressure and heart rate, exacerbated hyperglycemia, tension, and insomnia. 

As a physiologist, nutritionist, and endurance athlete, I don’t want anyone to be over-consuming either sugar or caffeine, and when they (myself include) DO consume energy drinks, I’d prefer the sugars to have a lower glycemic index (such as Palatinose) and the caffeine to come from natural sources (which can be “slower” forms of caffeine in several ways). Plants such as Green Tea Leaves, Coffee Beans, Guarana Seeds, Maca Roots, Cha de Burge Fruits, Yerba Mate Leaves, and Kola Nuts are all rich sources of natural caffeine that tend to be absorbed into the blood stream more slowly than synthetic caffeine. The combination of natural caffeine plus lower-glycemic sugars results in a more sustained, longer lasting, and less “jittery” form of energy – without the common up/down spikes that come from many mainstream energy drinks.

Added Supplements

At the more “premium” end of the energy drink spectrum (not the stuff you buy at the gas station), it’s becoming more common to see exotic energy boosters such as Panax ginseng (very effective for mental/physical energy, but also very expensive) and stamina/endurance enhancers such as Ribose (great for cardiovascular and muscular energy), as well as amino acids such as Taurine (to increase blood flow) and Tyrosine (for mental focus). Unfortunately, these exotic ingredients are often added to many energy drinks in tiny “pixie dust” amounts (too little to be effective) – so don’t put too much faith in a long list of exotic ingredients unless the actual product has undergone some level of scientific validation of its energy boosting claims.


The bottom line when it comes to energy drinks is to look for some of the “healthier” options that are coming to market – those with “slower” types of both sugar and natural caffeine, perhaps combined with meaningful levels of exotics such as panax ginseng, ribose, and tyrosine – for a more sustained increase in whole-body energy levels and improvement in mental focus.


About the Author: Dr. Shawn Talbott holds a MS in exercise science (UMass Amherst) and PhD in nutritional biochemistry (Rutgers). As an exhausted dad, scientist, and ultramarathoner, he is a frequent user of energy drinks that take a healthier approach to restoring mental and physical energy levels.


What is the “Best” Protein?

Of all the nutrition questions that I’m asked, one of the most common is about the “best” type of protein. My first response is typically to ask the person “best for what?” – because the answer to the “best” protein question tends to differ depending on what you want the protein to be doing in your diet.


If you’re simply looking for a source of protein calories, such as to serve as a meal replacement, then almost any type of protein will do the trick (whether from casein, whey, egg, soy, rice, hemp, pea, and a variety of other sources). However, if you want the protein for a specific purpose such as weight loss, or muscle mass, or appetite control, or exercise recovery, then you can maximize your benefits by selecting the “correct” protein for the desired effect. You may also have to consider other factors such as whether or not you’re able to digest lactose (the sugar in milk) which will be found in milk protein isolates and in most whey protein concentrates (but not in highly purified whey protein isolates or non-milk proteins such as soy). If you’re a vegetarian, then whey protein (from cow’s milk) is certainly not going to be the “best” choice for you. If, like a lot of people including my son, you’re allergic to casein (also from cow’s milk), then that is not a great option for you. 


When it comes to the “best” protein, there is a lot more to consider than simply the source (casein, whey, soy, etc) and the amount (how many grams per serving). Discussions of the value of protein supplements have become a great deal more complicated in the last several years. This is due not to the debate concerning whether or not athletes or dieters require greater dietary protein intakes compared to their sedentary or non-dieting counterparts (the scientific consensus is quite clear that athletes and dieters clearly benefit from increased protein intake) – but rather to the explosion in marketing of various forms of protein fractions as casein, whey, soy, and many others. The protein debate has slowly changed from “how much?” to one of “which protein is best?” – with no shortage of opinions.


If you look closely at the scientific research, there is very good evidence that protein needs are elevated by exercise training, infection, and periods of acute and chronic stress – including the “stress” of caloric restriction for weight loss. Some of the best evidence comes from studies of competitive athletes, in whom protein needs are nearly doubled during periods of intense training and competition. Athletes competing in power or strength sports probably require about 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, while endurance-trained athletes may need about 1.3 grams per kg. This ends up working out to about 0.6-0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight – so a 140lb “dieting” woman might need 80-90 grams of protein per day while a 200lb “dieting” man might need 120-150 grams per day.


Here is a “cheat sheet” (with detailed discussion below) to help you determine the “best” protein for a particular benefit…



Desired Effect

Best Protein

General Nutrition

Soy Protein Isolate (water-extracted to retain naturally-occurring isoflavones)

Weight Loss (fat loss & muscle maintenance)

Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)

Appetite Control

Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH) – taken between meals

Muscle Growth

Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH) – taken before resistance training

Slowing Muscle Breakdown

Casein – taken before bedtime

Post-Exercise Recovery

Glutamine & BCAAs (branched chain amino acids = valine, leucine, isoleucine)




General Nutrition (Soy Protein Isolate)

Soy protein has been criticized by some nutritionists as being an “inferior” dietary source of protein – but such criticisms are unfounded for the more modern purified soy protein isolates (90%-97% protein) that are currently marketed as dietary supplements. 


Soy protein has primarily been studied for its benefits in reducing hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), slowing bone loss, alleviating menopausal symptoms (hot flashes), and preventing cancers of the breast and prostate. Some, but not all, of the beneficial effects of soy protein appear to be due to the presence of antioxidant/flavonoid phytonutrients called isoflavones (primarily daidzein and genistein). 


The vast majority of studies that have investigated the health effects of soy protein, have looked at various indices of heart disease and osteoporosis, so soy protein should be thought of more as a “general health” protein than as a specific approach to fat loss or muscle maintenance (where whey appears to be much more effective).


Soy protein is considered to be quite safe – with as much as 60 grams of protein containing 90mg of isoflavones being used with no adverse effects in studies of up to one year. When selecting a soy protein, be sure to look for a “water-extracted” soy protein isolate, which avoids the use of harsh chemical extraction methods and retains a higher level of the naturally-occurring isoflavones that have been linked to reduced cancer rates.


Weight Loss (Whey Protein Isolate)

Keep in mind that whenever I use the term, “weight loss” I’m referring to a specific loss of fat with maintenance of lean/muscle mass. You can follow lots of diets that result in massive weight loss from water and muscle mass in just a few days – but that is neither healthy nor sustainable.


Whey is one of the proteins found in milk (the other is casein). Whey protein accounts for only about 20% of the total protein found in milk, while casein makes up about 80% of milk protein. Long considered a useless by-product of dairy (cheese) manufacturing, whey protein is enjoying an increased interest as a protein supplement.  Because whey protein includes a variety of immunoglobulin compounds (alpha-lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, lactoferrin, albumin, and immunoglobulins A, G and M), whey supplements are often touted as effective in boosting immune protection and enhancing post-exercise recovery. Whey protein also contains lactoferrin, a protein that has been shown to possess bacteriostatic and bactericidal activity against microorganisms that can cause gastroenteric infections and food poisoning.


Whey protein also contains approximate 20-30% of its amino acid content as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs = leucine, isoleucine, and valine) – which can be readily oxidized by the muscle as energy and may be associated with a delay in fatigue during long-duration exercise, especially in the heat.


In addition to its high content of immunoglobulins and BCAAs, whey protein is also a rich source of cysteine – an important amino acid constituent of the endogenous antioxidant glutathione. Intense exercise is known to reduce cellular glutathione levels – so high-cysteine whey protein supplements may be an effective approach to restoring glutathione levels in the body.


It is important to note that commercial whey proteins can differ dramatically from one another depending on the processing method and the total protein content. For example, whey protein can exist as simple whey powder (30% or less total protein content), whey protein concentrate (30-85% protein) or whey protein isolate (90% or higher protein content). In the case of whey protein isolates (the most expensive type), two key processing methods, ion exchange filtration and cross-flow micro-filtration, can remove different components of the total whey protein, resulting in end products with different taste, texture and functional properties. Whey proteins processed using the ion exchange methodology appear to retain the majority of the functional benefits associated with immune system maintenance. 


Whey protein has been used in a number of animal and human feeding studies, where it has shown benefits in promoting fat loss, stimulating muscle gain, elevating glutathione levels, and preventing metabolic acidosis (although this effect can be claimed for virtually any high-quality protein source). When compared to other protein sources (casein and soy), whey protein isolate is significantly more effective in terms of fat loss and muscle gain benefits across a wide range of scientific studies (athletes/dieters).


Appetite Control (Whey Protein Hydrolysate)

Whey protein isolate (WPI – as discussed above) is sometimes referred to as a “fast protein” to indicate its faster rate of digestion and absorption compared to proteins such as casein which are digested at a “slower” rate. Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH) is whey protein isolate that has been “hydrolyzed” – or partially digested with enzymes – to result in a blend of shorter protein chains (peptides) which have even faster digestion and absorption than the already-fast WPI. This means that in addition to serving as an excellent source of fat-burning/muscle-building whey protein, WPH has the additional benefit of working fast. This rapid speed of absorption of di- and tri-peptides into the bloodstream also sends two very important signals – one to the brain (reducing appetite) and another to muscles (stimulating protein synthesis). This direct appetite-reducing effect makes WPH an outstanding part of a “between-meal” snack (such as a bar) to help reduce cravings from one meal to the next. 


Muscle Growth (Whey Protein Hydrolysate)

Taken before resistance training (to maximize delivery of the protein peptides to the working muscles), WPH rapidly stimulates protein synthesis (muscle building). See the discussion above regarding the appetite-controlling benefits of WPH. When choosing a WPH, look for a “high-DH” version (DH = “degree of hydrolysis”) which indicates a high concentration of the specific di- and tri-peptides that are associated with the appetite and muscle building effects of WPH.


Slowing Muscle Breakdown (Casein)

Casein is the “other” protein in milk (along with whey) – but whey gets a lot more attention because of its benefits for fat loss and muscle maintenance. When taken before bedtime, casein (as a “slow” protein) can have some amazing benefits in slowing the “catabolic” (breakdown) effects of overnight fasting (where muscle mass can be lost in hard-training athletes). The average non-athlete who is interested in protein for weight loss or general nutrition can probably skip the nighttime casein – but the “slow trickle” delivery of amino acids from casein can help to slow muscle loss – which, for a high-level athlete can make a meaningful difference in muscular size, power, and athletic performance.


Post-Exercise Recovery (Glutamine & BCAAs)

Whey protein isolate (WPI – see above) is a rich source of essential amino acids including glutamine, cysteine, and the 3 BCAAs. There is growing evidence that specialized amino acid mixtures based on essential or semi-essential amino acids (and above and beyond what can be provided by whey protein supplements), can be especially beneficial for promoting post-exercise recovery, stimulating muscle growth, and accelerating wound healing (especially of soft tissues such as muscles, tendons, and ligaments). For hard-training athletes, exercise recovery can be enhanced by increased intake of 4 specific amino acids; glutamine and the 3 branched-chain amino acids (valine, leucine, isoleucine). Benefits shown in research studies of glutamine/BCAAs include reduced muscle soreness, improved immune system function (fewer upper-respiratory tract infections), increased energy/mood levels, and faster return to “normal” levels of intense training after competition. As with nighttime casein described above, the average dieter or health enthusiast can probably skip the use of post-exercise glutamine/BCAAs – but competitive athletes who are training hard on a daily basis will find that the speedier recovery that comes with glutamine/BCAAs means a higher level of performance in both training and competition.



I hope some of that helps you choose the “best” protein for your particular needs. Just keep in mind that if you’re looking for “general nutrition” go for a high-quality soy protein isolate. If you’re looking for weight loss (fat loss plus muscle maintenance), go for a whey protein isolate. For maximal appetite-controlling and muscle-stimulating effects, go for a whey protein hydrolysate (take it between meals for the appetite effects and before workouts for the muscle effects). Lastly, for competitive athletes, post-exercise consumption of glutamine/BCAAs can enhance recovery.


Thanks for reading. Let me know your comments below – including any other nutrition/fitness topics you’d like me to cover…


In health,




About the Author: Dr. Shawn Talbott holds a MS in Exercise Science (UMass Amherst) and PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry (Rutgers). As an avid endurance nut (15 Ironman triathlons, 8 ultramarathons, and dozens of marathons and Olympic-distance triathlons), he eats all of these protein sources in abundance.



Antioxidant Balance

Antioxidant Balance


A few days ago, I received this question via email from Dagmar in Germany…


“I am looking for the best antioxidants produkt. Hope, you can help me?”


Here is my reply…


Guten tag Dagmar,


Thanks for your question about antioxidants – When it comes to antioxidant nutrients, it is hard to define a “best” antioxidant because different antioxidants are most effective against different free radicals (the reactive molecules that cause cellular damage).


Before I get into a discussion of specific antioxidant nutrients, let me give you a brief overview of what antioxidants are and why our bodies need them in the right amounts and in the right balance.


What are Antioxidants and Free Radicals?

The term “antioxidant” refers to the activity possessed by numerous vitamins, minerals and other phytochemicals to serve as protection against the damaging effects of highly reactive molecules known as free radicals. Free radicals have the ability to chemically react with, and damage, many structures in the body. Particularly susceptible to oxidative damage are the cell membranes of virtually all cells, especially the skin because of its high lipid content and its proximity to ultraviolet rays from the sun.


The free radical theory of aging (and disease) holds that through a gradual accumulation of microscopic damage to our cell membranes, DNA, tissue structures and enzyme systems, we begin to lose function and are predisposed to disease. In certain cases – such as athletes, people who are outside a lot, smokers, and people who live in areas with high air pollution – oxidative damage may be elevated due to increased production of free radicals during intense activity. Although the body increases its production of its own internal (endogenous) antioxidant enzymes (glutathione peroxidase, catalase, superoxide dismutase), it may be theorized that supplemental levels of dietary (exogenous) antioxidants may be warranted to prevent excessive oxidative damage to muscles, mitochondria and other tissues.



Thousands of studies have clearly documented the beneficial effects of dozens of antioxidant nutrients. Increased dietary intake of antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamins C and E, minerals such as selenium and various phytonutrients such as acai, grape seed, pine bark and green tea have all been linked to reduced rates of oxidative damage as well as reduced incidence of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. There is certainly no shortage of nutrients and phytochemicals that possess significant antioxidant activity in the test tube. These test tube measurements of antioxidant potential are often termed “ORAC” measures, which refers to the oxygen radical absorbance capacity. ORAC assays measure the ability of an isolated nutrient to slow the degeneration of a synthetic fluorescent molecule in a test tube – it has no bearing whatsoever on the actual antioxidant benefits of the nutrient in a living system. For example, you could have a compound with very high ORAC values (in the test tube) and very low antioxidant benefits in a human body – likewise, a nutrient with a “moderate” ORAC score could have profound protective abilities in the body. These differences between the test tube and the human body can be due to a range of factors including the stability of the nutrient, to it’s digestibility and absorbability, to it’s transport and delivery to target tissues in the body, and to a host of related factors. Your body is not a test tube, and because no health benefit has ever been associated with ORAC, basing your choice of foods or supplements using claims of ORAC scores is misguided to say the least. As a nutritionist, I prefer to base my recommendations about antioxidant nutrition on actual health benefits observed in human feeding trials – rather than on spurious test tube results that have little bearing on actual human experiences.


At the typically recommended levels, the majority of antioxidants appear to be quite safe. For example, vitamin E, one of the most powerful membrane bound antioxidants also has one of the best safety profiles. Doses of 30-100IU of natural vitamin E have been linked to significant cardiovascular benefits with no side effects – BUT studies have also linked higher doses of isolated synthetic vitamin E (400-1,000IU) to worse cardiovascular health – indicating a potential for mega-doses of certain antioxidants to cause oxidation by displacing other beneficial nutrients (vitamin E is actually a “family” of 8 different isomers or types – and our body needs them all). Vitamin C, another powerful antioxidant, can help to protect and restore the antioxidant activity of vitamin E, and is considered safe up to doses of 500-1,000mg. Like vitamin E, higher doses of vitamin C are not recommended because of concerns that such levels may cause an “unbalancing” of the oxidative systems and actually promote oxidative damage instead of preventing it. Another popular antioxidant, beta-carotene, is somewhat controversial as a dietary supplement. Although diets high in fruits and vegetables might deliver approximately 10mg of carotenes daily, these would be a mixture of beta-carotene and other naturally occurring carotenoids. Concern was raised several years ago by studies in which high dose beta-carotene supplements appeared to promote lung cancer in heavy smokers. Those studies provided unbalanced synthetic beta-carotene supplements of 30-60mg – about 5-10 times the levels that could reasonably be expected in the diet. The moral of the story when it comes to antioxidant nutrition is what I like to call the “Goldilocks” scenario – where both “too little” and “too much” can be unhealthy, but “just right” in terms of amount and balance is associated with optimal health and well-being.


What to Look for in an Antioxidant Supplement?

Keep in mind from above, that antioxidant nutrients are important for controlling the activity of the highly-reactive oxygen molecules known as free radicals because unchecked free radical activity is what leads to the cellular damage known as “oxidation” and the cycle of glycation and inflammation that follows with additional damage and dysfunction. When it comes to antioxidant supplementation, however, it is the overall collection of several antioxidants that is important , rather than any single “super” antioxidant. This is what scientists call the “Antioxidant Network” – that network being made up of 5 major classes of antioxidants: Vitamin E (family), Vitamin C (family), Carotenoids, Bioflavonoids, and Thiols – and your cells need representatives from each and every one of these categories in order to mount the strongest antioxidant defense.


Think of it this way – if your baseball team had the best home run hitter in the world, but poor pitching and fielding, then your baseball team would not be the best team. The same thing applies when it comes to your antioxidant defenses – green tea, or acai, or vitamin E, or pine bark, or beta-carotene, and lots of other nutrients are all wonderful antioxidants on their own – but combining them to create a network that works together in different parts of the body and against different types of free radicals is the most effective way to go. Some of the top picks are: acai, beta-carotene (natural), lycopene, lutein, vitamin E (natural), vitamin C, alpha-lipoic acid, green tea, selenium, zinc, grape seed extract, and pine bark extract – but there are many many other choices of nutrients and herbal extracts and plant extracts that possess wonderful antioxidant properties.


We see many marketing claims about certain antioxidant nutrients as the “best” or “most powerful” antioxidant (usually based on ORAC test tube measures) – BUT I prefer to see antioxidant products include at least one member of each of the main categories within the Antioxidant Network.


The Antioxidant Network is the “family” of antioxidant nutrients that are found inside, outside, and between cells. It is important to get a wide variety of different types antioxidants in the diet because different antioxidants counteract damage by different types of free radicals – and within different cellular compartments.


There are 5 main components of the Antioxidant Network:


Vitamin C = from citrus fruits and strawberries are your best food source – supplements should bring intake up to 100-250mg/dose and up to 500mg/day.


Vitamin E = from almonds and other nuts are your best food source – but these are very high calorie, so a daily supplement 30-100IU/day of natural E (d-alpha tocopherol) may be warranted (preferably containing all 8 isomers of the Vitamin E family).


Flavonoids = from dark purple and blue fruits such as acai, grapes, red wine, grape juice, pomegranate juice, dark chocolate, most berries, and green tea are the best food sources. A diet with 5-10 servings of fruits/veggies contains approximately 100-200mg/day of flavonoids – and supplements of acai, pine bark, grape seed extract or green tea extract can be added as a good source of flavonoids.


Carotenoids = from yellow and orange fruits and veggies such as sweet potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and tomato sauce/ ketchup are your best food sources. A diet with 5-10 servings of fruits/veggies will provide about 10-20mg of carotenoids – supplements can be added, but avoid high dose and unbalanced supplements of synthetic carotenoids (such as taking beta-carotene alone at high dose).


Thiols = aside from protein foods (which contain cysteine, an antioxidant amino acid), thiols are rare in the food supply – but we know that supplements of alpha-lipoic acid and cysteine help the body to produce more of its own antioxidant enzymes (such as glutathione peroxidase – one of the cell’s most potent free radical fighters).


Another way to think about getting lots of “high antioxidant” foods into your diet would be to do so by “color” because Red, Orange, & Yellow foods tend to be high in carotenoids; Blue, Indigo, & Violet foods tend to be high in flavonoids; and Green foods can be high in either/both flavonoids and carotenoids – but they are certainly high in chlorophyll (the green pigment that protects the plant from the oxidizing rays of the sun – but also hides the other colors).


If you use the twin rules of “natural and balanced” when it comes to creating your Antioxidant Network (and forget about the single isolated “super-duper ORAC” measures), you’ll be giving your body a much more effective health benefit to slow free radical damage throughout your entire body (not just in your test tubes – ha ha).


I hope some of that helps to answer your questions and provide some guidance for you in choosing an antioxidant supplement.


About the Author: Dr. Shawn Talbott holds a MS in Exercise Science (UMass – Amherst) and a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry (Rutgers). He is an avid ultramarathoner whose exercise creates a lot of damaging free radicals. He fights them with an ample intake of acai, pine bark, green tea and a full rainbow of Antioxidant Network nutrients.