Antioxidants are very popular. The story of powerful antioxidants being able to quench body damaging free radicals is just too good for them not to be popular, right? I have often wondered that if companies couldn’t bottle up high concentrations of antioxidants into juices, powders, and energy shots and sell them at large margins…would antioxidants be so popular? This question is compounded by the fact that the research supporting increased antioxidant consumption in actual humans is not a complete slam dunk. Yes, the antioxidants in green tea (when combined with caffeine) can help you lose weight, the antioxidants in blueberries can help lower your blood pressure, and the antioxidants in pomegranates can help improve the function of your blood vessels. But there are numerous other studies showing less than remarkable effects.
So are they good or not? Should you strive to get more or not? What is the deal?
My option based on my reading and research is this.
There are lots of antioxidants that have many different chemical structures. This allows different antioxidants to impact your health in different beneficial ways. Do not get sold on the idea that there is ONE miracle antioxidant that when super-concentrated will possess magical powers – if there is such a thing we haven’t found it. And if someone is trying to convince you otherwise, there is probably an auto-ship program and a ‘great business opportunity’ for you as well.
Antioxidants have lot of benefits that we probably don’t appreciate yet. For example polyphenols, which are a major class of antioxidants (think green tea, blueberries, red wine, etc), are poorly absorbed by our digestive systems. This fact would cause a good number of (misinformed) health experts to say that this fact makes them a waste of dietary effort or money. But digestion isn’t the only fate for polyphenols. The unabsorbed polyphenols continue to pass through your digestive track only to be used by the good bacteria in your gut – helping make the good bacteria better (See a piece I wrote for Shape Magazine about this). Another more recent study showed that the antioxidants in green tea can reduce the risk of certain digestive related cancers. These beneficial effects may be driven by the same undigested polyphenols (Side note: the relationship between green tea and cancer is not definitive).
What about concentrated antioxidant supplements?
They are fine to use in addition to getting antioxidants from eating lots of fruits and vegetables in your diet (hence the word supplement). I use a freeze dried fruit/vegetable supplement at least once a day and have for the past 7 years or so. I’ll use it more often when I travel as my vegetable consumption usually decreases when living out of hotels. However, these types of supplements should come secondary to you being able to purchase and eat all the whole food you need and in addition to you already taking a multivitamin, vitamin D, and quality fish oil supplement.
We are just beginning to appreciate the heath effects of the complex group of bioactive compounds we refer to as antioxidants. Until scientists are able to figure out benefits driven by specific antioxidant in specific dosages get as many antioxidants as you can from as many different sources as you can. This means a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and then supplements.