A trip to a gorcery store or pharmacy reveals a particular trait among Americans: we love our antioxidants. From beverages to produce to processed foods, the words "wellness," "detox" and "full of antioxidants" are commonly seen printed on packaging in the health aisle and beyond — all boasting that miracle molecule. Antioxidants are a necessary component of a healthy diet, but over-supplementation may be just a waste of money — and could even be harmful to your health.
Antioxidants in action
Oxidation is a powerhouse when it comes to breaking down molecules. Think of the flanking metal support beams holding up bridges, or the rusted chain of a bicycle accidentally left out in the rain. The deterioration of iron into rust is a process of oxygen combining with iron molecules and freeing electrons, creating the compound iron oxide.
The same kind of process occurs on a cellular level within our bodies. Free radicals are naturally occuring, unstable molecules that achieve stability by bonding with other molecules, stealing their electrons and damaging them in the process. This bonding wreaks havoc on healthy tissue and is responsible for the aging of our bodies and other degenerative problems.
Antioxidants are molecules that help to neutralize radicals before they do damage to cells. This is an alluring fact for those who want to prevent aging and protect the health of their bodies, and it is why antioxidant-rich foods and drinks have exploded into markets everywhere. The humble molecules seemed to turn into a super-food overnight. Even the name sounds like "anti-toxin." And just like that, supplementation of the radical-neutralizing molecule became a regular routine for many.
A lack of evidence
In a report by Vardis Dilis and Antonia Trichopoulou, published in the International Journal of Food and Sciences in August 2010 on the effects of antioxidant supplementation, the findings were found to be inconclusive. The report explained that upon researching the levels of oxidative-stress in lipids, protiens and DNA, no solid evidence proved the benefit of an antioxidant-rich diet on overall health.
Even addressing the issue of the different kinds of antioxidants — including beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, and polyphenols — the results were the same: the evidence of improved health was unfounded.
However, the authors noted that a positive correlation could be argued. Antioxidants have their purpose in healthy bodily function and have been shown to prevent excessive biological damage to cells by stopping the radicals before they cause too much stress. Too few antioxidants could prove to be hazardous to health, but an excess of supplementation may just be money wasted — and perhaps a detriment to health.
More harm than good?
Chicago Tribune reporter Julie Deardorff explains in her article "Radical thinking on antioxidants
" that there may be evidence of health issues arising
out of antioxidant use, not prevented by it. A study found a link between antioxidant compounds and fertility issues in mice. Yet another hinted that an excessive intake of vitamins used for cancer prevention can exacerbate the illness or even increase your susceptibility to it.
All in all, there is a basic concession that too little is known about the effects of antioxidants to make solid claims as to their benefits or detriments. Though some positive associations have been found with antioxidant consumption, they have yet to be proven in a laboratory.
The best thing anyone can do is to choose natural sources of antioxidants, like fruits, vegetables, teas and nuts. The effects of natural antioxidants over processed ones have been shown to be more effective radical-eliminators, so incorporating more wholesome foods into meals instead of the latest juice concoction or boxed cracker will provide an antioxidant kick while also pleasing your palate.