June 24, 2008

All You Need To Know About Antioxidants

Knowing my fondness for dark chocolate and almonds, a friend recently gifted me with, what else, a Perugina "dark chocolate & almonds" bar.

Later that day, prior to indulging in a post-dinner nibble, I scanned over the packaging.

Right above the nutrition facts was a small text box that read: "175 milligrams of antioxidants per serving."

You are already picturing my eyeballs rolling out of my eyes and down the kitchen floor, right?

Here's the thing. It's one thing to advertise certain chocolates as "healthier" by displaying their cocoa content, but displaying milligrams of antioxidants is really pushing it, for several reasons.

First of all, there is no set number for how many antioxidant milligrams should be consumed on a daily basis.

Secondly, the way most antioxidant content in food is measured is not in milligrams but by something known as ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity).

This is basically a test of how efficient a given food is at protecting cells from a radical known as the peroxyl radical.

As a sidenote, berries are among the highest ORAC scorers.

And then, of course, there's the whole "issue" of antioxidants. We are just now beginning to understand a little bit about them.

Many people, however, think they're doing themselves a favor by happily downing whatever antioxidant supplement drugstores or supplement shops are happily shilling.

Not so fast.

Let's start at the beginning.

Oxygen is a wonderful element that helps our cells function properly, but it also causes a problem.

When an atom or molecule in our body comes in direct contact with oxygen, it loses one electron (stick with me, I promise this won't turn into a chemistry lecture) and becomes "oxidized."

Although some oxidation is normal (remember, our cells are constantly dying and being replaced), free radicals are, basically, destructive atoms and molecules that are not happy about missing an electron.

They unleash their frustrations by running into cells and damaging them, unleashing a chain reaction of cell injury that can compromise DNA and set the stage for a variety of diseases and cancers.

What makes all of this even trickier is that a certain amount of free radicals in our body is actually a good thing, as they make up part of our immune system, fighting off any foreign substances.

When it comes to excess free radicals, though, this is where the approximately 6,000 current recognized antioxidants come into play.

Mind you, our body is able to produce some antioxidants. However, these are only able to take care of the free radicals that are the product of normal body functions.

They are certainly not equipped to handle the free radicals that are the product of environmental pollutants and smoking.

Antioxidants basically look for free radicals and give them an electron so they can go on their merry way and stop wreaking havoc.

Some are preventive, and stop a free radical cascade before it begins.

Others, known as "chain breaking," get in the middle of a free radical gang and break it up before more trouble ensues.

Antioxidants (including vitamins C and E) are pretty special because they can donate electrons and, rather than become free radicals, remain stable.

Believe it or not, antioxidant research is still fairly new, and a lot of questions still need to be answered.

What is known is that antioxidants are most effective when consumed in food (it is believed that they work better in combination with certain phytonutrients) and in conjunction with other antioxidants.

So, downing thousands of milligrams of Vitamin C doesn't automatically guarantee a free radical defeat.

This partially helps to explain why the issue of "variety" and "diversity" is often stressed in nutrition.

Red-colored fruits and vegetables offer very different antioxidants than green colored ones, which offer different ones from blue and purple ones.

This is why "eating the rainbow" is often encouraged -- it provides as diverse a nutrient and antioxidant pool as possible.

Similarly, the antioxidants in whole grains are different from the ones in legumes, which are different from the ones in fruits.

Clinical trials have shown that isolated antioxidants in pill form are not as effective as those in food; in fact, some preliminary studies have shown that high doses of supplemental antioxidants can actually cause further oxidation.

I know, my head is spinning too.

In the end, though, we come back to standard nutrition advice. Eat a diverse, mainly unprocessed plant-based diet. That never seems to be the culprit of anything.

And a note to the folks at Perugina chocolates: a single cup of coffee delivers about 750 milligrams of antioxidants, so 175 isn't exactly a mind-blowing figure...


gd said...

great post andy.
very informative and educational.
i saw a commercial last night for antioxidant supplements on TV and was wondering more about the whole issue.

can you tell us more about this Phytosterol fad im seeing lately in yogurt and multi-vitamins, etc? what are phytosterols and why do we need them? and dont we just get them from eating vegetables? why would we need a phytosterol supplement?

Micah and Katie said...

Great post. I just overheard this week a lady in the bulk barn asking a worker where the dark chocolate chips where cause she needed them for a healthy cookie; she then went on to tell the worker that dark chocolate was better because of the antioxidants.

Oh marketers know what they are doing!