Antioxidants: Super-heros or Super-hype?

You have probably heard the term ‘antioxidants’ and you probably figured out they must be good for you if they are showing up in everything from cereal to shampoo. But do you really know what antioxidants are, and more importantly do you know why you need them?

To answer these questions we have to take a step back and understand a term maybe you are less familiar with, ‘free radicals’. Despite sounding like a lost hair band from the 80s, there is nothing “radical” about free radicals. Free radicals are responsible for major damage that occurs to your cells and DNA every day. Literally put, the free radical is the arch enemy of antioxidants.

At the risk of sounding too much like a high school biology teacher, let me try and explain exactly what free radicals are.

  • Like everything in the universe our cells are made up of atoms.
  • Each atom has a nucleus surrounded by electrons.
  • Atoms bind together by sharing electrons.
  • In the process of making energy, electrons move from one oxygen molecule to the next.
  • Sometimes an electron “slips” free, does not transfer to a new molecule, and is considered “free”.
  • This free electron is known as a free radical.

Sounds like a nice story doesn’t it?

Before you decide to form a picket line and start chanting, “Free the electrons, Free the electrons!” you need to know that an electron without a home is a bad thing. It wants to find a place to stay and these unstable molecules cause serious damage. They can attack DNA, which controls cell growth and development leading to cancer. They can get in the bloodstream setting the conditions for heart disease and stroke. In fact, most every aging process has to do with free radical damage.

Enter our hero, the antioxidant. Unlike comic book superheroes, antioxidants take a little more diplomatic approach to fighting villains. Antioxidants and free radicals do not actually engage in epic battles to the death as you might expect. Antioxidants simply give free radicals what they want… a safe place to live. Antioxidants “quench” free radicals, engulfing them and significantly reducing their ability to do damage.

Hopefully you understand now why you see the term ‘antioxidants’ all over foods and consumer goods packaging today. Tipping the scales in the antioxidant free radical battle going on inside your body has major implications in how you look, feel, and age. So how can you get the advantage to the antioxidant side? First, reduce introducing unnecessary promoters of free radicals into your body, such as UV exposure and smoking.

Second and most importantly, make sure you are taking enough antioxidants in through your diet. Antioxidant capacity is measured in what is known as ORAC units. USDA researchers have recommended a person consume 5,000 ORAC units per day but the average American consumes less than 1,700 ORAC units. You can get more ORAC units from foods rich in antioxidants, such as blueberries, but this can be difficult and expensive to do consistently. An easier and cost effective solution may be to choose from the wide array of quality antioxidant supplements available today.

Justin Serra

Justin Serra is a nutritional product formulator, consultant, and holds a patent in nutritional manufacturing. He is currently the head of a nutritional products and natural skin care company, HAVVN.

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