So, What are Antioxidants Really?

As a consumer, I'm bombarded with loads of health benefits on product labels, including "99.9% Fat Free," "contains isoflavones", "6 grams of soy protein" and "packed with antioxidants!" While some of them sound suspiciously healthy, I really have very little for a frame of reference. What I know about antioxidants is what the media hype tells me, and that more you consume, the healthier you will be. I decided to do a little research an uncover what this catchphrase really means.

A Definition of Antioxidant

If you learned your Latin roots in English class, you've probably picked up that the term "Antioxidant" roughly translates to "against oxygen". Antioxidants bind together with oxygen molecules (02), nullifying any effect the molecules might have on their environment. Within our bodies, cells produce oxygen molecules as a by-product of their normal everyday processes. These oxygen molecules, called "free radicals", can have a detrimental effect on cells and genetic material (DNA). An antioxidant, by binding with the free radical, will neutralize it and prevent it from causing damage.

Where Do You Find Antioxidants?

Several minerals and vitamins which we consume regularly act as antioxidants, including vitamin A, C and E. Beta carotene and other members of the carotene family -which cause the rich color in many fruits and vegetables - are also antioxidants. Oranges, carrots, spinach and mangos are all great sources of these vitamins and minerals, therefore good sources of antioxidants. So basically, antioxidants are nothing new, what's new is the discovery that antioxidants can be beneficial to your health.

A Recent Study on Mice Validates the Positive Use of Antioxidants

At a recent study at the University of Washington, one group of mice had their cells fortified with antioxidants, while another group did not. Within the antioxidant group, there were two subgroups which had the antioxidants in different areas of the cell. The group with antioxidants in the cells' mitochondria lived 5 months longer, which translates to a 20% increase in life span. This is an important finding, and will probably lead to an even greater focus on antioxidants in the future.

So, Should We Be Taking Antioxidant Supplements?

The American Heart Association advises against it for now. While the positive effects of antioxidants have been demonstrated, some contrary studies have shown that individuals with more antioxidants in their system may not live as long. The AHA suggests (as they often do) to stick with a well-balanced diet and to include fruits and vegetables in your diet that contain anti-oxidants.

For myself, I think I'm content with the AHA advice on antioxidants. We live in an age where there is so much hype on minor studies by companies trying to edge each other out on the basis of being more healthy that I feel a healthy dose of conservatism is due.

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