By Mayra Rodriguez
With all the headlines and media coverage surrounding Antioxidants and super foods lately, it’s hard to ignore this health buzz. Most of us probably understand that antioxidants are good for us but wonder what exactly they are.
No worries…I’ll provide a clear and direct explanation: It all starts with free radicals. Free radicals are nasty chemicals that are capable of damaging cells and genetic material. The body generates free radicals as byproducts of turning food into energy. Other free radicals are in the food we eat or are even generated by sunlight’s action on the skin and eyes.
But there is good news; we aren’t hopeless against free radicals. The body itself has created a defense mechanism against free radicals, but we can also extract free-radical fighters from food. Antioxidants work by donating electrons to free radicals without turning into electron-snatching substances themselves.
Some studies have shown that people with low intakes of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables are at greater risk for developing chronic conditions. Clinical trials began testing the impact of single substances, especially beta-carotene and vitamin E, as weapons against heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions.
Even before the results of these trials were in, the media, and the supplement and food industries began to hype and market on the benefits of “antioxidants.” Unfortunately the results were not the results they had hoped for. While it’s true that the package of antioxidants, minerals, fiber, and other substances found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains helps prevent a variety of chronic diseases, it is unlikely that high doses of antioxidants can accomplish the same results.
So what’s the final verdict?
Free radicals contribute to chronic diseases from cancer to heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease to vision loss. This doesn’t automatically mean that substances with antioxidant properties will fix the problem, especially not when they are taken out of their natural context. Because trials so far have been short term they have been quite inconclusive, but generally don’t provide strong evidence that antioxidant supplements have a substantial impact on disease.
At the same time, there is much evidence suggesting that eating whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—all rich in networks of antioxidants and their helper molecules—provides protection against many of these pests of aging. The best intake of antioxidants would be from eating whole, naturally occurring foods and avoiding antioxidant supplements, at least until more long term studies are done that show the true benefits/effects of these supplements.