Why are antioxidants important to our health? Which foods are high in antioxidants and what is the latest antioxidant research telling us?
Are All Antioxidants the Same?
No. An antioxidant is something that inhibits or stops the oxidation process, especially one that is used to change the deterioration of stored foods or food products. Any chemical compound which has been added to certain foods, natural and synthetic rubbers, gasolines, and other products to retard oxidation is considered an anitoxidant. Antioxidants are also aromatic compounds such as amines, phenols, and aminophenols which are used to prevent the loss of elasticity in rubber and in the gummy deposits found in gasoline. The preservatives tocopherol (vitamin E), propyl gallate, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) are also antioxidants, which prevent rancidity in fats, oils, and fatty foods, but these are not the antioxidants that we are concerned about.
Which Antioxidants are Important?
For health purposes we are interested in antioxidants that stop oxidation caused by free radicals. The antioxidants that are important to our health and well-being are substances such as vitamin C or E that remove potentially damaging oxidizing agents in a living organism. These types of antioxidants are prized for their amazing ability to fight heart disease, cancer, and aging. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of different substances that can help our bodies, working as antioxidants. In the body, antioxidants such as beta-carotene, other related carotenoids, vitamin C, alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin E), and selenium and manganese, can help to reduce oxidation caused by free radicals. They’re joined by glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols, phytoestrogens, and many others.
Which Are the Best Antioxidant Foods?
Everybody has their own ideas of the best antioxidant foods. The list of top antioxidant foods changes often (remember the excitement over acai fruit?). Surprisingly, many studies show that currently SMALL RED BEANS (they look like tiny kidney beans), sometimes called the Mexican bean, are topping the list, but many foods dark in color are rich in antioxidants. The best way to add a lot of antioxidants into the diet, is eat a large variety of high antioxidant foods and not focus on only one. You don’t have to have products flown in from Nepal or the Amazon. You can find foods high in antioxidants close to home: pinto beans, blueberries, cranberries, pecans, pomegranate, artichokes, blackberries, raw spinach, prunes, raspberries, red grapes, pecans, Granny Smith apples, black beans and more. Many antioxidant foods are a rich, dark color, raw, and whole (peeling and seeds included)! And remember, while blueberry pie is tempting, it doesn’t compare with a bowl of fresh blueberries. Living, raw, organic, non-GMO foods are always the best choice over packaged, dried, chemically-treated or frozen foods.
What Does Antioxidant Research Show?
Results of research studies vary dramatically. More long-term studies are needed. A six-year trial, the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), published in theNational Center for Biotechnology Information, US National Library of Medicine, in the Archives of Opthamology, found that a combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and zinc helped to prevent the development of advanced age-related macular degeneration (but not cataract development) in high-risk patients. Lutein is a a naturally occurring carotenoid found in dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale. It was concluded that lutein may help to protect vision.
Other studies such as the lung cancer study by Omenn and other researchers, concluded that after an average of four years of supplementation, “the combination of beta carotene and vitamin A had no benefit and may have had an adverse effect on the incidence of lung cancer.” Studies by Hercberg, and others, and Cook, and others, using randomized trials of antioxidant vitamins and supplements, showed insignificant results. The Hercberg study showed lower incidence of cancer in men, but not women. The Cook study showed no significant effects of antioxidants ascorbic acid, vitamin E, or beta carotene on cardiovascular events among women at high risk for cardiovascular disease. Beta-carotene was reported in the Physicians’ Health Follow-up Study to be beneficial on cognitive function, after 18 years of follow-up.
“Existing biological and epidemiologic data, in combination with findings from this randomized trial, indicate that long-term beta carotene supplementation may provide cognitive benefits. The extent of benefits that we found for long-term beta carotene use appeared modest, but the mean differences in cognitive performance we observed were substantially greater compared with those in a trial of donepezil among nondemented subjects”
Results from research studies are inconclusive and conflicting. More research is needed for longer periods of time in order to scientifically determine the benefits of antioxidants.
Is it Good or Not? What Should we Do?
It is well-known that free radicals contribute to many chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, vision loss, and Alzheimer’s disease. Even though more research is needed, abundant evidence suggests that eating whole foods rich in antioxidants and their helper molecules, such as dark berries, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, can be of some help to provide us with protection against many of these diseases and to combat the effects of aging.