Maybe our relatives were on to something when they used oranges as Christmas stocking stuffers -- they're full of age-old health benefits.

This is something nutritionists at Brigham Young University (BYU)  are studying in the hopes of finding out exactly what about the tangy fruit makes them so good for us.

We all know the orange is known for its vitamin C and blood-protecting antioxidants, but the researchers wanted to learn why a whole orange is better for you than its components when taken separately.

The ultimate outcome of the research could be a super-supplement that captures the best health benefits of eating oranges and drinking orange juice.

Fruit vs. vitamin pills

"There's something about an orange that's better than taking a vitamin C capsule, and that's really what we're trying to figure out," said Tory Parker, BYU assistant professor of nutrition, dietetics and food science.

Parker says the researchers think it's the particular mix of antioxidants in oranges that makes them so beneficial.

The team published the best health-promoting combination of those natural antioxidants in a recent issue of the Journal of Food Science.

The paper's lead author, Brenner Freeman, was a BYU undergrad when he conducted the research. Now applying to medical schools, Brenner chose to study oranges because he was raised on a citrus orchard in Arizona.

"I spent a lot of time hunched over a lab bench in the dark doing this research," Freeman said. "But what I learned was worth it, and having this publication definitely gives me an advantage on my med school applications."

Protective properties

Parker explained that every time we eat carbs and fat, we increase the amount of free radicals in our blood. Over time, that increases our chance for hardened arteries and heart disease. But eating fruit protects us from that effect for a few hours after every meal.

"Carbs and fat increase free radicals, and fruit and internal antioxidants counteract that," Parker said.

That means fruit, like oranges, should actually be our dessert. (No, seriously.)

"Remember, before cookies, candy and other sugary snacks became so widespread, fruit was our 'sweet,'" said Parker.

Considering there are already countless amounts of health supplements on the market, one may wonder why we would need another one.

Parker noted supplement companies often mix "high concentrations of extracts from blueberry and blackberry and orange and throw them all together and hope it's good."

He wanted to avoid such assumptions by testing dozens of combinations of the antioxidants found in an orange at the same proportions they occur naturally.


"We're looking for synergistic effects," Parker said. "Cases where the effect of two or more antioxidants together was stronger than the sum of them separately."

The researchers identified several combinations of antioxidants that were the most synergistic and found the compounds hesperidin and naringenin, in particular, appeared to contribute the most punch.

Those are the mixtures Parker will continue to research in human studies to evaluate whether their health effects mimic those of eating an orange. He and his students are also conducting similar work with blueberries and strawberries.

BYU has applied for patents on the best antioxidant mixtures from all three fruits, and they are available for license by companies for further development.

"I'm really most interested in protecting healthy people and keeping the healthy, healthy," Parker said. "And no matter what our research finds, it's very clear that a great way to do that is to simply eat more fruit."