Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Antioxidants – Help or Hype – Part 1

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Obviously we all know that oxygen is essential to human life. But, there are chemical substances (usually oxygen or hydrogen) that are missing an electron.  When that happens, the absence makes the chemical substance reactive and then called a free radical and prone to oxidizing nearby molecules an electron from them. If not quenched immediately upon production, the radical species will proceed to “steal” an electron from body cells causing destruction.

Why do free radicals exist in the body? They are not all bad and play important beneficial roles, so they are always present.  They are produced during energy formation, by breathing and exercise, and by the immune system to help destroy bacteria and viruses that enter the body.  They also can be formed from exposure to alcohol, solar radiation, smoke, ozone, smog and other environmental pollutants.

Enter the Antioxidants

Antioxidants sweep up these free radicals.  This can help to prevent the cell damage that may occur that contribute to some cancers, bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease, cataracts, and premature aging, and other chronic degenerative diseases.

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other plant foods rather than supplements contain thousands of naturally occurring antioxidants that work together with the antioxidant vitamins (C, E, and beta carotene) in disease prevention.

The Food Industry  Responds

We find antioxidant claims on everything from water to cereals to alcoholic drinks to chocolate to red wine to pomegranates, and licorice root to name a few.  In the U.S., sales of top antioxidant supplements hit $5 billion in 2010. But this marketing has been over-hyped and misunderstood. Science has not yet determined how antioxidants completely work in the body; and it is certainly unclear whether supplements have any healthy effects.  Some research even says that they may cause more harm than good. A recent animal (mouse) study found that antioxidant compounds caused fertility problems and antioxidant supplements have not been shown to improve athletic performance in humans.

Consumers have been led to believe that a high intake of antioxidants will protect them from ageing, cancer, heart disease and other diseases. And early studies in the 1990s showed that people who ate more antioxidants from foods had a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.

Overdosing on Antioxidants

Although some levels of antioxidants in the diet are required for good health, there is considerable doubt as to whether antioxidant supplementation is beneficial, and if so, which antioxidant is beneficial and in what amounts. Also, there is a risk of over consumption. Some antioxidants will act as pro-oxidants when consumed in high quantities and in combination with factors such as exposure to pollution, smoking and excessive exercise.

Trials looking at heart disease, cancers and strokes have been mixed and when Iron-man tri- athletes were supplemented with vitamin E for two months, it exacerbated oxidative stress and inflammation.

Supplements can lose potency when ingested or be inadequately absorbed by cells.  The type of antioxidant, the type of foods people eat and even individual gut bacteria can affect how these compounds actually work in the body.  And most natural antioxidants work together to make the mechanism more complex.

Shifting Away from “Antioxidant” 

While antioxidants are an established marketing trend, and consumers like the message behind antioxidants, the idea that antioxidants are a specific nutrient with clearly defined benefits is not as well supported in science or by the scientific community, as many people would like to think. Antioxidants have an aura of wellness around them, but the fact is that they’re becoming a generic message.

As a consequence, in Europe, use of the word antioxidant became “illegal”, because the science does not substantiate the claims connection to antioxidants.

Already, regulators in the U.S. have looked more carefully, and with more questioning, at antioxidant claims. The scientific community internationally applauds what Europe is doing, outlawing use of the word antioxidant.

What this means is that merely stating on a food label “a source of antioxidants” is not enough.  They will eventually have to be more specific on which components in their products have enough scientific evidence to substantiate a health benefit.  What some companies are doing is replacing the word antioxidant with polyphenols, because polyphenols is a much more valid scientific term. The problem, however, is that consumers are much less familiar with the term polyphenols. So there’s a huge investment that’s going to be taking place in consumer education.

Certainly in Europe, you see some companies in transition. For instance, Welch’s started advertising not about the antioxidant benefits of Welch’s grape juice, but about the “polyphenol antioxidants,” for about a year. At the end of the year, they dropped the word antioxidants, hoping that consumers would continue to make the link.

Until science catches up with the antioxidant claims on food products, eat your fruits and vegetables.  And read the next post – Antioxidant : Help or Hype Part 2 on more specific research on antioxidant supplements alone  (Coming Soon)

Enhanced by ZemantaWhat are Polyphenols?

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