Antioxidant business is booming. According to the Antioxidants Market Overview produced by the Allied Market Research, what was already a $2.9 billion industry in 2015 is expected to rise to $4.5 billion by 2022. "Antioxidants" is a buzzword that gets thrown around by multi-billion dollar antioxidant supplements' industry. We can buy breakfast cereals, sports bars, energy drinks, and other processed foods with added antioxidants. We are constantly told that we NEED antioxidants and we should always say "yes" to them. Antioxidants are promoted as additives that can prevent premature aging, heart disease, cancer, and a ton of other conditions. The sad truth is that many of us just follow the imposed by advertisers trend and don't fully understand what antioxidants actually are, how they work, and where they come from.
The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) defines antioxidants as "man-made or natural substances that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage." Examples of antioxidants include vitamins C and E, selenium, and carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
OK. But what causes cell damage? Our bodies consist of nearly trillion cells that are constantly threatened by many external factors, such as lack of food, infections, and injuries. Another (internal) threat comes from nasty chemicals called free radicals. Our body generates free radicals as the inevitable byproducts of turning food into energy. Free radicals also get in with the food we eat, the air we breathe; some are generated by sunlight's influence on the skin and eyes; excessive stress can also contribute to free radicals' generation. Hence, we all have free radicals in our system.
Free radicals come in numerous shapes, sizes, and chemical configurations. What they all have in common is an insatiable appetite for electrons, that they can steal from the cells, which causes cell damage. Damage induced by free radicals CAN change the instructions coded in a strand of DNA. For example, it can make a circulating "bad cholesterol" molecule more likely to get trapped in an artery wall; or alter a cell's membrane, changing the flow of what enters the cell and what leaves it. However, we are not defenseless against free radicals.
Mother Nature in her wisdom has armed our cells with their very own internal antioxidant called glutathione, ready, willing and able to mop up those pesky free radicals. Under normal circumstances, glutathione is sufficient to protect us from natural levels of oxidation, keeping oxidation and anti-oxidation forces in balance. We also get free radical fighters from our food. These defenders are what we call "antioxidants." They are giving electrons to free radicals without turning into electron-scavenging substances themselves. In short, antioxidants feed free radicals electrons, so free radicals don't "steal" those electrons from the cells.
Do you take expensive antioxidant supplements or plant extracts because they promise to help you reduce the risk of cancer and slow aging? Antioxidant supplements are popular and commonly considered healthy. However, research has not shown antioxidant supplements to be beneficial in preventing diseases. Mostly disappointing clinical trials' results haven't stopped the supplement and food industries from hyping the benefits of "antioxidants." Stretching claims and altering the data supplement producers actively promoting the disease-fighting properties of all sorts of antioxidants. One of the issues is that our organisms are complex. Different antioxidants seem to have an affinity for different tissues in our body; in other words: antioxidants are NOT interchangeable; this means that no single supplement can do the work of the whole bunch. So, if you're healthy and are not diagnosed with nutrient deficiency, please save your money and don't buy such supplements. Instead, stick to a balanced diet replete with fruits and leafy vegetables.
Several decades of dietary research findings suggested that consuming higher amounts of antioxidant-rich foods might help to protect against diseases. Differences in the chemical composition of antioxidants in foods versus those in supplements explain why antioxidants gained naturally (through the diet) work and generated don't. For example, eight chemical forms of vitamin E are present in foods. Vitamin E supplements, on the other hand, typically include only one of these forms—alpha-tocopherol. Add in colorful fruits and veggies with each meal and take out some of the processed foods, and you've got a great start to managing your oxidative balance.
You'll get plenty of:
For more information on antioxidants in foods, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture Web page on antioxidants and phytonutrients.