One of the big health trends these days is antioxidants. I’m always coming across articles and advertisements about how certain foods are rich in antioxidants and how important it is to buy their products made with acai berries or some other exotic ingredient, or even better an expensive antioxidant supplement, to protect against cancer, heart disease, and just about every other malady. Are they really all they’re cracked up to be?
Part of the claims surrounding antioxidants stem from cell biology. Reactive oxygen species can cause cellular and molecular damage, including damage to DNA potentially leading to cancer. Therefore, the thinking is that consuming antioxidants will reduce the amount of reactive oxygen species, and therefore reduce the damage they cause, leading to better health.
Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work this way in reality. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables, which are high in antioxidants, has clearly been shown to promote good health. However, taking antioxidant supplements such as vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E or beta carotene has not been found to reduce mortality in large clinical trials; nor has it been shown to reduce vascular disease or stroke. In fact, there is some indication that high doses of antioxidant supplements are actually associated with increased mortality.
So what does this mean? Since eating fruits and vegetables has been shown to reduce coronary disease, strokes, and more, while taking antioxidant supplements seems to be of dubious benefit, these benefits may not be caused by antioxidants, or there may be other factors at play causing adverse effects at high doses. Either way, the available data indicate we should eat lots of fruits and vegetables, but not waste money on antioxidant supplements.