Free radical damage can change the instructions coded in a strand of DNA. Can antioxidants help? This post from Vancouver Sun unravels the truth about antioxidants!
Antioxidants are the new black in our health-obsessed culture.
Claims about the supposed health benefits of antioxidants are among the most popular food and supplement label claims, and particularly in marketing for so-called “superfoods.”
Headlines bleat almost continuously about the antioxidant content of everything from strawberries and cranberries to coffee, chocolate and wine. But what do we really know about the health impacts of foods and beverages rich in these heroic compounds? And what are we to make of their ability to fight nefarious-sounding free radicals? I am here for you.
What are they saying?
Well, food processors are currently in love with antioxidant claims. To be fair, that’s because consumers are obsessed with fine-tuning their diets. Goji berries and acai and other expensive exotics are marketed in extract and capsule form with label claims from “antioxidant support” to “naturally beneficial.”
Why should we care?
Antioxidants are widely touted as a way to slow aging by mopping up reactive free radicals (more on those later). That’s not precisely true. It would be more precise to say that abundant antioxidants stop free radicals from accelerating the aging process. When free radicals are in excess they can cause damage to cells, damage that accumulates with age.
What in the world are free radicals?
Free radicals are molecules short an electron created when the body burns energy — for instance by exercising. They scavenge electrons from other nearby molecules to corrosive effect. Sally Willis-Stewart, a senior instructor in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at UBC Okanagan put it simply: “If you put a piece of metal out in the rain it’s going to rust and that’s oxidation and that’s what free radicals do. Oxidation damages cell membranes and DNA, which can cause cells to malfunction.”
Are all antioxidants the same?
No, there are many many different kinds and they differ in the kinds of free radicals they interact with. “We need a whole variety of antioxidants in our diet as a kind of cellular rust protection,” said Willis-Stewart. Vitamins A, C and E are antioxidants, but taking supplements of those vitamins is unlikely to be beneficial. With dozens of antioxidants all interacting with each other and compounds in the body, trying to micromanage antioxidants in you diet would be more than a full-time job, she said.
Where should I get my antioxidants?
Yellow and orange vegetables contain flavenoids such as caroten, while leafy greens contain vitamins A and C. Phytochemicals are plant-based compounds that come from the deep, dark colours of blueberries and cranberries, said Willis-Stewart. Coffee and tea are rich sources of polyphenols. If all of this sounds impossibly complex, it’s not. Ignore the labels and the pitches. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables of all colours will provide all the antioxidants you will ever need, she said. “They are phyting for our health.”
Make no mistake, the food industry likes nutrition claims almost as much as the easily-led consumer.
Scientists at the University of British Columbia are beavering away on new ways to measure the antioxidant content of chocolate, so that chocolatiers can maximize antioxidants for marketing purposes.
“We are woking on a way to measure antioxidant content at every stage of the processing, from raw beans to dried, fermented and roasted,” said lead researcher Xiaonan Lu. “I suspect the time and temperature of roasting will have the greatest impact, so this will help optimize that process.”
The principals at B.C.-based Wize Monkey tout the antioxidant content of their coffee-leaf tea, but cautiously because it’s hard to quantify, which could lead to legal entanglements.
“We prefer to market our tea based on the flavour,” said co-founder Max Rivest. That said, the narrator of their online promotional video does mention that coffee-leaf tea “has more antioxidants that green tea.” Their Facebook page mentions antioxidants, too.
The BC Blueberry Council is far less reticent, noting on its website: “… blueberries can help slow the aging process and reduce cell damage that can lead to cancer, cardiovascular disease and loss of brain function.”