An exhausting analysis of how much antioxidants there are in 3,100 different foods was published a few years back.
These foods weren’t cherry picked, either. There was everything from Oreos (which are 100% plant-based, if you can believe it), to wild caught moose and reindeer (and those are real grassfed meat).
The results? The average amount of antioxidants in meat and animal-derived foods was about 98.5% less than plant-based foods. In umol per 100 gram serving:
- Meat and animal-derived = 180 ORAC value (avg)
- Plant-based = 11,570
Were there any superfood outliers within the meats? In terms of overall antioxidant content, not really. Even the richest meat source (chicken livers) came in about 91% lower than the average for plant-based foods.
Even what is called nature’s perfect food – the egg – measured up quite poorly.
Twelve were tested, including egg whites, egg yolks, whole eggs, and even Egg Beaters. How much antioxidants they had ranged from 0 to 160. That actually ranks eggs below the average for animal-based foods.
How about milk and dairy? Several dozen foods were in this category and the results were disappointing. Skim milk came in at 40, the 2% milk was 40, and skimmed buttermilk was 50.
But there is one antioxidant only in meat…
What is the one thing that you won’t find in any of the vegan foods? The antioxidant L carnosine, which is the same thing as carnosine (the more commonly used term).
This isn’t just any ol’ antioxidant, either. It appears to have benefits which are quite uncommon.
Where does carnosine come from?
L carnosine is actually two different amino acids joined together by a single bond. It’s beta-alanine and histidine combined.
Is beta-alanine vegan? No, it is one amino acid not found in plants. But because it’s not essential, it’s not a problem. Our bodies create it internally, so we don’t need to get it from dietary sources.
Histidine is in plentiful supply in all food sources. So that, combined with the fact that our bodies synthesize beta-alanine, means we make carnosine internally.
If we did need beta-alanine from diet, then why are the foods highest in carnosine coming from the meat of herbivores?
In the same way, cholesterol is not found in plants. Yes we need it, but we make it internally. That is why getting excess cholesterol from your bacon and eggs at breakfast or chicken patty at lunch can be problematic for some.
Though unlike cholesterol, the science suggests that excess L carnosine is good for you.
Supplements aside, when it comes to getting it already made – from dietary sources – you can only get it one way… by eating animals.
Specifically, the muscles of animals is where it’s coming from. The brains, eyeballs, and spinal cords too, but you’re unlikely to be eating those for supper tomorrow.
Despite what you may have read elsewhere, the amount of carnosine in eggs, milk, and cheese is next to nothing. Only trace amounts.
Sure, technically milk and eggs may be a source, but that’s kind of like how you could technically say Miller Lite beer and Krispy Kreme donuts are sources of other antioxidants. The missing caveat is how terrible of sources they actually are. The best food sources of L carnosine will generally be the strongest muscles on a given animal. Though not all animals have “strong” muscles that we eat.
Carnitine vs. carnosine
Is carnosine the same as carnitine? No, they are completely different things.
Many sources say carnitine is an amino acid and that is wrong. Like carnosine, carnitine is a deipeptide – meaning it is made of two different amino acids.
In the case of carnitine, our body naturally makes it using lysine and methionine, which are two essential amino acids that are plentiful in both omnivorous and plant-based diets.
There are different types of carnitine including acetyl-L-carnitine, L-carnitine, and propionyl-L-carnitine.
They play an important role in energy production by transferring long chain fatty acids to our mitochondria, which are the power plants of our cells. Depending on the form of carnitine, they can either deposit the fats on the outer membrane (CPT1) or “shuffle” them directly inside (CPT2).
While their names sound similar, it’s important to not confuse these two very different things. Can you take carnosine and carnitine together? Sure, but their benefits are like comparing apples and oranges. There’s a huge difference between them.
What is L carnosine good for?
It is best known as being an antioxidant, but contrary to popular belief, this compound is only believed to be a good scavenger of the hydroxyl radical (.OH). L carnosine demonstrates little effectiveness against the superoxide radical, hydrogen peroxide or hypochlorous acid in vitro (1). It has been found to:
“…have weak inhibitory effects when used at high concentrations in some (but not all) assay systems”
“Assay systems” is referring to different tests. So then, what does carnosine do for the body?
“…could conceivably act as physiological antioxidants by scavenging .OH, but that they [referencing carnosine and anserine] do not have a broad spectrum of antioxidant activity”
In a nutshell, it’s a weak antioxidant. Though to be clear, even though it is overall very weak relative to plant-derived antioxidants like the powerful astaxanthin, that doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.
Why is carnosine important then? Whether from dietary sources or as a supplement, it is believed to be good for you because of the anti-glycation activity it demonstrates.
Glycation and aging
Here at Superfoodly, we’re always hammering home the message of minimizing sugar intake. And not necessarily because it’s empty calories. If you workout daily and eat an otherwise healthy, whole food based diet, then you won’t gain an ounce from occasionally indulging in “empty calories” of cookies and cupcakes.
Rather, the real problem with sugars is how they form advanced glycation end products (AGEs) when they react with amino acids inside your body, after they hit your bloodstream. That holds true whether you’re getting the sugar from high fructose corn syrup or watermelon juice.
Sugar (glucose) is an essential nutrient needed for most cells in your body to function. However the Maillard reaction – which is a glycation process – results in harmful side effects from the glucose reacting with lysine and other primary amino acids.
A similar process occurs with sugars and fats (lipids) which technically is advanced lipoxidation end products (ALEs). But for the sake of simplicity, most people – including many scientists – use AGEs as an umbrella term in reference to all end products, whether they come from sugar + protein or sugar + fat.
Likewise, when it’s fructose instead of glucose, no one says advanced fructation end products. That’s not a real term, not even in medical literature.
Except for when differentiation is necessary, we also use AGEs as the umbrella term.
AGEs increase cell death and proliferation, promote crosslinking of collagen which leads to the stiffening of arteries and activates inflammatory pathways in the endothelial cells.
Damage from glycation in our bodies has been shown to be a contributing factor in atherosclerosis, cataracts, kidney failure, and Alzheimer’s disease, just to name a few (2).
For decades now, scientists have known about the side effects collagen crosslinking has on the aging of skin (3). It is said to contribute to skin wrinkling and the loss of elasticity, two things you probably have heard associated with L carnosine.
When there is crosslinking of collagen in the eye, it’s worth noting that it’s believed to accelerate cataract development by forming photosensitizers in the crystalline lens (4). Given that diabetics appear to be most affected by AGEs and also suffer much higher rates of non-traumatic vision loss, this correlation seems to be more than coincidental.
No one really knows what causes aging. All of the theories put forth, while backed by science, remain theoretical. If anything, the overall picture seems to paint that there are many different causes of aging. Research suggests that one of those might be AGEs (5):
“As of today, restriction of dietary intake of AGEs and exercise has been shown to safely reduce circulating AGEs, with further reduction in oxidative stress and inflammatory markers.”
In short, many smart minds in science believe that minimizing AGEs is one of the most important anti-aging strategies, because it may reduce inflammation and oxidative stress within the body.
Glycation vs. oxidation?
The Maillard reaction is a chemical process and is not caused by enzymes. In other words, your cells are not directly causing it.
It’s the same reaction that takes place when you make pancakes. The darker they are, the higher the amount of Maillard reactions which have occurred (and the more AGEs they contain).
That reaction is different than say, a sliced up apple on your counter which turns brown… that’s oxidative browning caused by the activity of the apple’s enzymes. Topically applied antioxidants may help slow down that type of browning, because it is an enzymatic process.
Can antioxidants help prevent the Maillard reaction? Nope. However, the most touted carnosine benefit is that it purportedly can help inhibit it.
While antioxidants can’t stop the glycation process from occurring, they may be able to help reduce side effects from it, which create oxidative stress.
You can’t prevent it
No matter how much you modify your diet, you can’t get rid of AGEs. Only a small portion of them we get externally in their pre-formed state (primarily from cooked foods). The vast majority of AGEs we create internally, when sugars plus proteins or fats interact in our body.
For those with diabetes, whether type 1 or type 2, there is an even higher internal production of AGEs.
And remember, you don’t need to be eating cotton candy to get sugars. All carbohydrates are sugars.
We do need sugar in our bloodstream, but having high amounts at a given time will create more glycation. While you can’t avoid it, you might be able to reduce some by eating slower digesting, complex carbs which minimize blood sugar spikes.
An apple is a good example. Despite its high sugar content, because of the fiber it has a GI of 36 and a glycemic load of only 5.
Glycation is why carnosine is important or at least believed to be. The biggest theorized benefits of a carnosine supplement or rich food source are the anti-glycation properties it seems to have.
How carnosine works to help the human body is theoretical and unproven. As with almost any biological activity, it’s very hard to measure what’s truly going on inside of living and breathing humans on the cellular level.
Sure, measuring side effects like blood pressure or cholesterol is easy, but that only suggests what might be going on inside and doesn’t actually prove the exact biological activity which is causing it.
That is why conclusions about this compound (as well as the vast majority of antioxidants) are largely based off findings from animal studies and Petri dish experiments. To be 100% clear, the only proven health benefits of foods that contain carnosine are:
- They tend to be good sources or protein, since the carnosine is concentrated in the muscles of animals.
- Some have higher amounts of omega 3 fatty acids, such as grass fed beef.
Those two things are all you can claim as being proven and really, the carnosine has nothing to do with either, aside from their levels tending to correlate (i.e. higher protein content in a meat often correlates with there being high levels of carnosine).
With all that said, research suggests this compound might benefit the following:
- Inhibit glycation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) by reactive aldehydes (6).
- Help minimize early-stage lipoxidation when in the blood plasma (not the muscle tissue) (7).
- Human cell cultures appeared younger in experiments where they were provided high concentrations of carnosine as they lived in Petri dishes. When they were were moved to other Petri dishes without it, their appearance changed to resemble the same age as the control group (cells which were never treated) (8) (9).
- Blood glucose levels may be improved through the regulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). That was what findings suggested in a study involving rats, where they believed that the carnosine released from muscles during exercise seemed to have that effect (10).
- Act as a chelating (binding) agent for harmful metal ions coming from copper, iron, and zinc. Those are believed to worsen Alzheimer’s, since higher concentrations are found in the brain’s amyloid plaques, which is a hallmark of the disease (11).
- There may be anti-inflammatory effects in the striatum of the brain, which may be beneficial for neurodegenerative diseases (12).
- Cataracts and Alzheimer’s may be worsened by the inactivation of esterase, an enzyme produced by white blood cells. Carnosine was said to help protect inactivation of it caused by glycation and a steroid in an study (13).
- Inhibiting the mTOR and TGFß/Smad3 pathways, reducing the side effects of reactive carbonyl compounds (14).
- Neuroprotective activity was suggested as a possibility based on a study involving mice, where damage from acute spinal cord injuries appeared to be reduced with carnosine supplementation (15).
There is research to support others, too. While it might be good for you in multiple ways, the elevator pitch is that its anti-glycation activity is what’s most unique and from that, whatever benefits that may result.
Dietary sources of carnosine
As mentioned, this compound is only found in animals. For that reason, there’s no such thing as vegan carnosine food sources. There are really not even any good vegetarian sources, since eggs and dairy products like milk and cheese will only contain trace amounts (actually when rounded, they often contain zero).
Even though vegan foods with it don’t exist, there are supplements containing it which are synthesized and not harvested from animal sources. More on that below.
Apologies in advance for the jargon used in some meat types. Unfortunately there are not layman’s terms for some of these specific muscles.
Highest food sources
|Meat Type||Carnosine amount
(mg per 100g serving)
|1.||Horse gluteus medius||616||Moro et al., 2015|
|2.||Turkey pectoral||538||Wołos et al., 1982|
|3.||Horse sternocleidomastoid||533||Moro et al., 2015|
|4.||Pork loin and shoulder||466||Carnegie et al., 1983|
|5.||Horse triceps brachii||420||Moro et al., 2015|
|6.||Beef shin||396||Carnegie et al., 1983|
|7.||Beef top side M. Semimembranosus muscle||379||Chan et al., 1993|
|8.||Beef angus cattle (edible parts average)||372||Liu, 2011|
|9.||Beef angus steer (edible parts average)||353||Liu, 2011|
|10.||Beef top side rump||333||Carnegie et al., 1983|
|11.||Venison from red deer hinds||330||Drew et al, 1987|
|12.||Horse flexor carpi radialis||300||Moro et al., 2015|
|13.||Cenison from red deer stags||291||Drew et al, 1987|
|14.||Chicken breast||290||Maikhunthod and Intarapichet, 2005|
|15.||Pork shoulder and legs||276||Carnegie et al., 1983|
|16.||Chicken pectoralis||271||Boldyrev, 1987|
|17.||Pork longissimus dorsi||240||Easter and Baker, 1977|
|18.||Turkey breast||240||Davies et al., 1978|
|19.||Turkey leg||239||Wołos et al., 1982|
|20.||Horse masseter||198||Moro et al., 2015|
|21.||Lamb leg||190||Carnegie et al., 1983|
|22.||Chicken breast, female (native Korean breed)||176||Jung et al., 2013|
|23.||Beef femoris||158||Boldyrev et al., 1988|
|24.||Chicken breast, male (native Korean breed)||147||Jung et al., 2013|
|25.||Chicken leg||124||Plowman et al., 1988|
|26.||Lamb shoulder and leg||111||Carnegie et al., 1983|
|27.||Pork de-boned extract||105||Gopalakrishnan et al., 1999|
|28.||Chicken thigh, female (native Korean breed)||91||Jung et al., 2013|
|29.||Chicken thigh, male (native Korean breed)||80||Jung et al., 2013|
|30.||Chicken thigh||42||Maikhunthod and Intarapichet, 2005|
|31.||Rabbit hind leg||40||Peiretti et al., 2011|
|32.||Beef myocardium||23||Boldyrev, 1987|
|33.||Duck breast (commercial)||16||Lee et al., 2015|
|34.||Duck breast (native Korean breed)||14||Lee et al., 2015|
|35.||Conger eel extract||2||Kantha et al., 1999|
|36.||Lobster extract||1||Kantha et al., 1999|
|37.||Siberian salmon||0 (<1 or ND)||Boldyrev and Severin, 1990|
|38.||Giant oyster||0 (<1 or ND)||Boldyrev and Severin, 1990|
|39.||Crab||0 (<1 or ND)||Boldyrev and Severin, 1990|
|40.||Short-necked clam extract||0 (<1 or ND)||Kantha et al., 1999|
Since the bottom four actually round down to zero, that tells us that fish and seafood are a poor dietary source.
We have received critical comments for listing horse meat as a food source. While it’s not consumed in the US, the fact is that it is eaten in many countries and our readers are worldwide.
Secondly, a particular animal’s cuteness or our affinity for it is a nonsensical reason to eat or not eat it.
Those commercials by ASPCA begging for your buck, while showing a shivering puppy in a cage, are the most superficial pieces of propaganda.
Believe us, we have zero interest in eating dogs. Though we would like to point out that IQ tests have shown that pigs are actually smarter than not just dogs, but can solve problems just as well chimpanzees (16). So why is it “good” to harm pigs for food, but “bad” to do so with less intelligent horses?
It’s because of the hypocrisy of human reasoning. Intelligence aside, pigs are considered ugly and dirty, while horses are admired and considered beautiful. Therefore, that makes horses (and dogs) more worthy of living.
Imagine if we were to use that same standard in deciding the value of each human life.
Why these foods are dangerous
Ironically, many of the highest natural sources of carnosine also have the highest levels of AGEs.
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are the two most worrisome categories of glycation end products.
HCAs are only found in meat, not plants.
PAHs are primarily created during the burning of organic substances, whether that be charcoal, wood, gas or oil. Unfortunately the most popular ways to cook meat, such as grilling and frying, can create vast amounts of PAHs in the food.
The U.S. government is required to publish the Report on Carcinogens every few years, as mandated by congress (17).
Inside, you will find the following which are “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” according to the report:
- 4 types of HCAs (PhIP MeIQ, MeIQx, and IQ)
- 15 types of PAHs. One of the most troubling is benzo(a)pyrene, which is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization (18). Very few compounds have that rating.
Now to be clear, aside from processed meat being classified as a Group 1 carcinogen in 2015, neither the U.S. government nor the World Health Organization classify meat as causing cancer.
They classify the HCAs and PAHs as causing it or likely to cause it, but only when outside of the food. They don’t classify them as such when they are naturally found in the meats.
Putting a hooker in a white wedding dress doesn’t make her a pure virgin. We have a hard time understanding how these being in food are any different.
Vegan foods aren’t pure, either. If cooked at high temperatures, the carbohydrates in them create a different end product; acrylamide.
But which are worse, HCAs and PAHs or acrylamide? There’s less evidence for the latter. But even if it were equally dangerous, the conclusion would still be that carnosine rich food is potentially less healthy.
The amount of HCAs in grilled chicken is a staggering 14,000 ng per 100g (3.5 ounce) serving. It’s one of the highest test and actually makes a well-done grilled steak look tame in comparison, at 810 ng (19).
Though how do these and other cooked meats compare in the grand scheme of things? A study looked at the total amount of AGEs in over 500 foods (20). Their findings were:
“…based on standard serving sizes, the meat group contained the highest levels of AGEs”
But how about cooked veggies or high-carb foods like grains, which may have extremely high acrylamide content after they’re cooked. How does their total amount of AGEs compare to meat?
“In contrast, carbohydrate-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and milk contain relatively few AGEs, even after cooking.”
The takeaway? Amping up your appetite for more steaks and burgers may not be the best idea. Sure, you’re eating more carnosine with them, but you may also be eating more AGEs at the same time… which is the whole thing you are theoretically trying to combat!
Foods vs. supplements
Even if you completely ignore the amount of AGEs in turkey and pork loin, are they providing adequate levels of carnosine?
When we say “adequate” we’re talking about the amounts which research has suggested is needed for purported anti-glycation benefits.
Unlike many other compounds which are believed to be phytonutrients, the half-life of L carnosine in your body is extremely short. You could load up on it with your breakfast of red meat, but hardly any may be left by lunch.
This is because the similar-sounding enzyme, carnosinase, quickly degrades carnosine in the body.
The job of the carnosinase enzymes in your body is to breakdown carnosine into beta-alanine and histidine. That means once it hits your bloodstream, your body is already trying to break it down because it wants those two amino acids for protein purposes.
Even if you ate 3.5 ounces of turkey breast (a potent source, providing an estimated 240 mg), it’s a far cry from the recommended carnosine dosage amounts you often read about.
Life Extension Foundation claimed this in one of their articles:
“…even if a person relied on red meat for their carnosine, it would not last long enough in the body to provide sustained protective effects. Supplementation with 1,000 mg a day of carnosine overwhelms the carnosinase enzyme, thus enabling one to maintain consistent blood levels of this critical nutrient.”
This is a topic which has even been brought up in mainstream media. Dr. Oz did a segment on carnosine a few years back. The supplemental dosage he discussed was (we’re quoting here) “take it twice a day, that’s 500 mg, take it with breakfast and then take it again at dinner.”
What is the age to begin taking L carnosine? He mentioned the age of 30 and how that is when…
“It’s probably not a bad time to start thinking about these things. We reap huge benefits when we start things young in life. It’s like putting away money in saving accounts, the earlier you start, the better off you will be long term.”
To be clear, because there are a lot of scammers out there… Dr. Oz was NOT endorsing a brand. Actually the prop bottles used were clearly created for the show, as they were simply labels which had the word “carnosine” on them.
Neither Life Extension or Dr. Oz. explained who their recommended dosages were directed towards, but one might guess they had in mind people with normal diets, who are least getting some from meat.
How about those who are strictly plant-based… vegans? Lacto vegetarian or ovo vegetarian? All three of these groups are getting none or close to it from the foods they eat.
A couple decades ago, even the best L carnosine supplements on the market were only 50 mg and derived from animal sources. Nowadays the capsules are typically 250 or 500 mg each and are synthesized, without the use of animal muscles. That means today, even vegans can take the supplements (assuming they buy gelatin-free vcaps).
More important as we age?
Based on muscle biopsies taken from patients with neuromuscular diseases, it was found that the amount of carnosine in muscles is 63% lower at age 70 than at age 10 (21). The graph below shows how the levels are inversely correlated with age.
We are not aware of a comparable study measuring the levels in healthy humans throughout their lifespan, but in normal and healthy rats, the levels have been measured and show a similar decline with age over their lifespan.
It’s easy to understand why this is such a popular supplement. There’s research to suggest we make less as we get older – and while unproven – the purported anti aging carnosine benefits which might exist. Those things make it tempting to try, however be warned that it can be expensive depending on where you buy it. Also, remember not to mix it up with L carnitine, which is something completely different.
Examples of dietary supplements:
- NOW Foods L carnosine 500 mg – 100 vcaps (what we use)
- Jarrow Formulas L carnosine 500 mg – 90 capsules
- BulkSupplements pure L carnosine powder – various sizes available
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.