What Happened to Antioxidants? (March 14, 2017)
Ok, so it’s not like antioxidants actually WENT anywhere. But it wasn’t that long ago that everyone was all Antioxidant This and Antioxidant That, and people were comparing ORAC scores like they were their kids’ ACT scores. Then suddenly, one day – nothing.
But not COMPLETELY nothing, because I still run into people (mostly your middle-aged and older types) who are concerned about getting enough in the way of antioxidants and may even be taking a special supplement for same. You folks, I’m here to save you $30 a month. Everyone else can go back on Pinterest.
Antioxidants were a Thing back in the time of blown-out hair and fat-free frozen yogurt, and for anyone who tragically missed this stage of American culture, here is a quick lesson for you.
When your body has been through injury or trauma (like radiation, overexertion, or even aging), there is a particular kind of residual damage called “free radicals”. Think of these as the molecular equivalent of berserkers, raging around through the body causing further damage, especially to DNA and cell membranes.
The damage that these free radicals cause is called "oxidation" and is counteracted in the body by – you guessed it – antioxidants. There are enzymes and other cellular compounds in the body that perform this antioxidant activity, but antioxidant substances are also found in fruits and vegetables.
So when all this first began to be of medical interest, corporations (being what they are) ran out, took individual nutrients with a lot of antioxidant activity (the top three being beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E), squished them together into pills, and hawked them to everyone who wanted to give themselves a healthy edge.
And people being what WE are, we all started stuffing down antioxidants like our lives depended on them –which, to be fair, is indeed how it looked for a time. All kinds of foods and nutritional substances were tested and given numerical scores (the aforementioned ORAC score) that rated the amount of oxidation that that substance could negate. The USDA had a nice database of them for a while.
This trend came to a screeching halt when a research study that was supposed to establish once and for all that taking beta-carotene supplements was beneficial for your health instead found no such thing. In fact, it turned out that they had NEGATIVE results in some people. Similar studies followed thick and fast, and antioxidant supplements went out of style quicker than the mullet. (Please tell me that the mullet IS out of style. Please.)
What had happened, of course, was the same thing that has probably happened a hundred times in the last few decades. Someone tried to make big bucks by making a medicine out of a healthy food. Right now I can’t think of a single successful instance of this occurring. Not that that’s ever going to stop anyone.
Antioxidants are a crucial class of chemical compounds found in foods, mostly of the fruit and vegetable ilk, and they are essential for human health. FOODS with antioxidants are great for you. But antioxidant SUPPLEMENTS at this point can validly be characterized as a farce. They have never been found to be beneficial in preventing disease.
You’re going to see this time and again. Somebody finds a component in a food or herb that does this Great Thing. People study the heck out of that component. In the meantime, somebody starts manufacturing it and a lot of people buy and consume it. Then, sooner or later, it turns out that that component, in order to really perform its important function, HAS TO WORK WITH OTHER COMPONENTS. Which is why foods are good for you, and pills seldom are.
In food, antioxidants are present in lower concentrations but in much greater variety than when they are put into supplements. They also have other compounds naturally present with them that assist them in their beneficial activities. Not so in pill form.
It appears also that antioxidants themselves do not distinguish between good and bad cells. In food, absorbed by the body with its fellow nutrients, they become part of the body's police force to protect it from disease. In isolation, they are random weapons that can be used by the police to protect the body's health or by Tony Soprano to protect a tumor.
Moreover, the presence of those much vilified free radicals acts as a trigger to the body to perform certain kinds of repair and cleanup. Load a bunch of isolated antioxidants into the blood, that signaling system gets nullified.
So. If you feel like antioxidants deserve some special attention in your diet, consume more FOODS with antioxidant activity. Nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day is what is currently recommended, and you probably don’t need to worry about antioxidants on top of those unless eight of those servings are french fries. Prunes and raisins, coffee and tea, pecans, kidney beans, apples, blueberries are all stars in the antioxidant department. They won’t get you into any trouble.
Finally, some scientists kindly went out and did a bunch of science and put together a really great database of foods and their ORAC values. In case you want to know more about which foods have good antioxidant activity, here it is:
Should you want to bump up your antioxidant consumption, that, I think, should be how you do it.
--dr. diane holmes
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