You would have to be living under a dietary rock to not have heard of antioxidants – a kind of supernutrient extolled for their miraculous, age-defying, disease-thwarting properties. Accordingly, antioxidants are now used in marketing campaigns of everything from coffee to aloe vera skin cream.
But what is an “antioxidant” anyway? And do they actually do anything?
Simply put, antioxidants are thought to fight something called “free radicals”. Free radicals are reactive molecules that float around the body wreaking havoc. Antioxidants are molecules that neutralise free radicals, and your body produces them naturally or consumes them in ordinary food.
One thing is for sure: free radicals are bad. They have been linked to all sorts of health problems and diseases, including ADHD, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
So if free radicals make you unhealthy, and antioxidants fight them, consuming more antioxidants will make you more healthy, right?
That’s the prevailing wisdom behind the antioxidant craze, anyway. Unfortunately, things are a bit more complicated…
1. There isn’t only one kind of “antioxidant” or “free radical”
These terms aren’t names of specific chemicals so much as broad categories. There are loads of different antioxidants and different free radicals, and only specific antioxidants metabolised in specific ways can be of any use to the body.
So just because a food technically contains “antioxidants” doesn’t necessarily mean those antioxidants can be of any use to the body at all. It’s like saying: spice makes food taste better, therefore you should put nutmeg in your eggs Benedict.
2. Antioxidants are in ordinary food, too
Here are some foods known to contain antioxidants:
- Dark chocolate
- Green tea
- Acai berries
And here are some foods that also contain antioxidants:
Simple ol’ vitamin C – yep, the same stuff that’s found in oranges and carrots – is one of the most common types of antioxidant. Also on the antioxidant list: vitamin A, vitamin E, manganese and even capsaicin, the oil that makes a chilli pepper spicy.
In fact, almost all foods contain antioxidants in some form. And even if one food contains “more” antioxidants than another, those particular antioxidants might not be beneficial to the body at all.
3. There is basically no evidence that consuming more antioxidants is healthy
It isn’t that the antioxidant craze is totally off base – adding more antioxidants to your system to fight free radicals has a certain logic to it. But there is basically no evidence that consuming more antioxidants than usual has any benefit at all. It’s kind of like taking vitamin pills: good in theory, mostly useless in practice.
As a meta-analysis by the Harvard School of Public Health put it: “The studies so far are inconclusive, but generally don’t provide strong evidence that antioxidant supplements have a substantial impact on disease.”
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no benefits to eating more antioxidants, only that we haven’t found any yet.
So relax, follow regular, old fashioned dietary science, and eat lots and lots of acai berries – not because they’re a superfood, but because they’re delicious!