Antioxidants, deemed a nutritional miracle cure, are claimed to cure a plethora of health issues.
These medical problems range from cancer to heart and eye disease. So how do we discern truth from exaggeration?
And how effective are supplements containing antioxidants?
To start, where can we find high levels of antioxidants? Antioxidants are found in certain fruits, vegetables and grains.
Antioxidant-rich foods primarily contain vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and other carotenoids.
Acai berries are noted to contain high concentrations of antioxidants. In recent years, 110,000 metric tons of acai berries have been farmed and shipped from northern Brazil.
In Belem, a city in northern Brazil, the city contains 3,000 acai points where people buy slurries containing acai berries. With such popularity, the question arises as to the mechanism by which antioxidants act in the body.
According to professor and author Joe Schwarcz, antioxidants work to neutralize free radicals that enter the body when you breathe. Furthermore, free radicals are produced by the process of metabolism and the creation of fuel in the body.
In regards to a person's health, free radicals are problematic because they attempt to take electrons from other substances, potentially changing DNA coding or altering cell membrane formations.
Antioxidants, in turn, act as electron donors and neutralize free radicals. Nevertheless, despite research supporting this theory, several factors are important to consider.
Although antioxidants may deactivate free radicals, their reputed ability to prevent cancer and other diseases is questionable.
First, the fruits and vegetables containing antioxidants also contain other physiologically active components that may be responsible for a reduced risk of cancer and other diseases. Also, the antioxidant potential of a substance is found in a laboratory setting and not in the body itself (where antioxidant action actually happens).
The most common method generates free radicals in an environment containing KMBA (alpha-keto-gamma-methiolbutyric acid). A free radical attack breaks down KMBA and ethylene gas is released.
Antioxidants are added to the mix and reduce the amount of ethylene; antioxidant potential is then determined by the amount of ethylene emitted. Although effective in the lab, the body poses complications. The amount of absorbed antioxidants is unknown, along with the body's potential interference when neutralizing free radicals.
So how accurate are marketing claims about antioxidants and their superpower status? In regard to combating diseases, some positive links have been noted. Nevertheless, these are sweeping claims and more in-depth studies are essential.
To date, such thorough experiments have not been conducted. Additional trials are needed in the studies concerning cancer prevention. In regards to heart disease, trials have been done, but only trials with vitamin E appear to have validity in preventing heart disease.
Even with vitamin E, however, conflicting studies complicate the matter. As a consumer, what should you do? To eat or not to eat? Ultimately, antioxidant-rich foods are indeed beneficial (both for other compounds in these foods and potentially for the antioxidants themselves), but the sweeping claims you hear may overstate their benefits. The punch line is to keep eating, but also keep caution when thinking they are the ultimate medical cure.
Nicole Reder is an AmeriCorps member in Walla Walla who taught at Prospect Point Elementary School and currently serves at the YMCA. She is originally from New Hampshire and graduated from McGill University in Montreal.