Are Antioxidants a Cure-All?

We hear so much lately about “super foods,” and often antioxidants are associated with these types of foods. So what exactly are they and do we need them to stay healthy? Best Food Facts registered dietitian Sarah Downs breaks down the science and benefits associated with antioxidants.

What are they?

Before we can define what antioxidants are, we must first know what free radicals are. Free radicals are formed when certain molecules interact with oxygen. Their biggest danger to the human body is the potential for them to react with cellular components like DNA or the cell membrane, causing cells to function poorly or die. This damage to cells may initiate the early stages of cancer and heart disease. Free radicals are also suspect in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, cataracts, diabetes, kidney disease, and age-related blindness.

Antioxidants are natural compounds found in some foods that help neutralize free radicals in our bodies.

There are many different substances that can act as antioxidants and those that are most familiar are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and other related carotenoids, along with the minerals selenium and manganese. There’s also glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols, phytoestrogens, and many more. It’s important to note that each antioxidant has a different chemical and biological behavior and therefore plays a different role.

Are they important for health?

While we know that free radicals are contributors to many different chronic diseases, this doesn’t automatically mean that antioxidants will fix the problem. Currently, the research is inconclusive for most antioxidants; however, there is significant evidence that suggests eating whole fruits, vegetables and whole grains — that all are full of antioxidants — provides protection against many chronic diseases and aging.

Are added antioxidants as effective as those that occur naturally?

Often, vitamins like C, A, and E are added to foods. There is no physiological difference between these added antioxidants and those that occur naturally in foods. However, there’s no evidence that taking an antioxidant dietary supplement works as well as antioxidants found in foods. Moderation is key with supplements as they can be too much of a good thing. With food products, it is extremely difficult to consume an excess amount of antioxidants.

Do antioxidants lose their protective properties when cooked?

Depending on the food, cooking temperatures and methods can sometimes increase or decrease antioxidant levels. For example, lycopene in tomatoes remains fairly stable regardless of cooking temperatures, while beta-carotene levels decrease. The important thing is that you eat antioxidant-rich foods — raw, baked, boiled, and steamed are all great choices!

Is there a specific amount I need to consume each day?

There is no set recommended daily allowance (RDA) for antioxidants, but most health professionals will agree that making sure at least half of the plate at each meal is fruits and vegetables…which have lots of antioxidants in them!

What foods are the best sources for antioxidants?

The best sources are fruits and vegetables, as well as products derived from plants. Great antioxidant sources include berries, green-leafy vegetables, legumes, beans and whole grains.

The image “Antioxidants” by Practical Cures is licensed under CC BY 2.0.