Finding the Function in Designer Food
By Kimberly Day

I cannot deny my love and fascination with food. Ever since I boiled my first bowl of water to make Jell-o@, I've been hooked. (Of course, my mother wasn't so thrilled when the plastic melted all over the stove!) Still, you can imagine my delight when the market began to explode with "functional foods."

I have to admit that I was skeptical at first. Let's face it, if we ate the way we should (fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fresh poultry and seafood) instead of feasting on junk food, we wouldn't need "special" food. And if our farming practices weren't so destructive, we wouldn't need to replace the nutrients we stripped away in the first place. But this is the reality we live in, which makes functional foods exceptionally timely.

Putting the Function Back in Food

According to the International Food Information Council, "'Functional Foods' are foods or dietary components that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition." These can include nutrient-fortified or enhanced foods and beverages, dietary supplements, fruit or vegetable components being added to a food, or key elements of several types of foods being extracted then combined.

Of all the different types of functional foods on the market, many are offered as beverages. It seems like everywhere I turn, there are smoothies with a variety of different protein options, vitamin-infused waters, and a plethora of juices and concentrates bragging about their high antioxidant levels. It is the last type of functional beverage that interests me the most. I'm a huge fan of antioxidants. Antioxidants are the antiagers of the nutrient world, working to protect your body from free radical damage.

Every time you eat, breathe, or move, your body uses fuel created from the food you eat to produce energy. But just as a car using gas to produce energy releases harmful by-products like exhaust, so, too, does your own body's energy-producing efforts produce dangerous free radicals.
Free radicals are highly reactive forms of oxygen that are missing an electron. When they come into contact with normal molecules, they try to steal an electron, damaging the healthy cell and its DNA. In fact, some estimates show that every cell in your body takes 10,000 oxidative hits to its DNA daily!
Free radical damage has long been believed to be a risk factor of many of the chronic diseases that accompany aging-including heart disease, eye degeneration, memory loss, damage from UV light, and cancer. Antioxidants, however, gobble up as many free radicals as they can and deactivate them, preventing them from doing damage.

The Best Drinks on the Market?

Believing the amazing power of antioxidants, I went in search of the best of the best. As a true believer that you get what you pay for, I bypassed the grocery stores and looked into the top-selling antioxidant drinks available online and through relationship marketing.

I found that three stood apart from the pack: MonaVie, Xango, and Thai-Go. MonaVie is an acai-based drink that also contains pomegranate, prune, pear, bilberry, cranberry, blueberry, grape, and kiwi, as well as a few other fruits. Their marketing claims that MonaVie "delivers the phytonutrients and antioxidants you need to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle." They go on to state that their freeze-dried acai powder "boasts an ORAC score of 1,027 - higher than any other fruit or vegetable tested to date, on a gram for-gram basis." These statements intrigued me very much.

Next, I looked at Xango.
Xango is a mangosteen-based drink that is rich in xanthones, a specific class of compounds that are known for their antioxidant properties. However, I couldn't find anything on the company's Web site indicating other ingredients, so I'm left to believe it is just mangosteen. As for marketing claims, Xango declares that mangosteen contains "antioxidizing phytonutrients called xanthones that support your health."

Finally, I researched Thai-Go, another mangosteen-based drink that also contains noni, grapes, raspberries, blueberries, apple extract, and several other fruits. It also contains decaffeinated green tea. From a marketing standpoint, Thai-Go claims to deliver a "punch of antioxidant protection with a high ORAC value." They go on to say that antioxidants, particularly one category known as bioflavonoids, "enhance vitamin C absorption and help maintain collagen and capillary walls. They also aid in the body's defense system."

Thai-GoThe Truth Is in the Testing

Right off the bat, I was struck that both MonaVie and Thai-Go referred to the ORAC value of their drinks, while I couldn't find any mention of ORAC for Xango. I found this baffling. ORAC stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity and is the accepted method of measuring antioxidant content in a food. To market an antioxidant drink without a word about ORAC seemed strange to me, so I took my investigation one step further and sent all three beverages to an independent lab for testing.

I chose Brunswick Laboratories to do the evaluation due to their strong reputation for specializing in antioxidant testing. I had all three products tested for their water-soluble antioxidant capacity. The results were quite interesting.

MonaVie was found to have the lowest ORAC value, with a reading of 23,323. Xango wasn't much higher, coming in at 24,480. But Thai-Go was off the charts at 51,939.

The Lesson to Be Learned

While I know that you can't believe everything you read, I have to admit that I was shocked by the discrepancy in ORAC values among these drinks. All three are comparably priced and all three are pretty prominent in the marketplace, yet that is clearly where the comparisons end.
After this little experiment, it became obvious to me that if you truly want to improve your health and get the biggest bang for your buck, you need to do your homework. Read labels, investigate ingredients, and ask for nutritional markers, such as ORAC values. You, your health, and your pocketbook are worth it.

Kimberly Day has written for several health newsletters and magazines, and has recently completed her first book (co-authored with Dr. Susan Lark) entitled Hormone Revolution. She also pens a free food eLetter entitled Food for Thought: Quaffs and Cuisine for Decadent Health.