Antioxidants are all the hype lately. The compounds are supposed to stave off diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and keep you young and beautiful for years to come.
Promises like these have people paying $4 to $6 for 500 ml of pomegranate juice , the new drink that's virtually flying off the shelves.
Research is generating front-page headlines like Chocolate May Help Prevent Cancer! This does not, however, make it any less fattening, a fact that hasn't been breaking news for a long time.
Red wine as well as the less glamorous whole grains and fruits and vegetables are also touted as oxidation busters.
Just so you understand the lingo, antioxidants are substances that inhibit oxidation and guard the body from the effects of molecules with one or more unpaired electrons, the so-called free radicals that play a role in many diseases.
But what the studies aren't terribly clear about is the relationship between eating free-radical-eliminating food and preventing disease.
The use of supplements for this purpose is controversial. One study showed that one antioxidant, beta carotene, taken as a supplement may actually significantly increase cancer risk in smokers, though some have questioned the study's methodology.
Some researchers believe that antioxidants work only in foods. They posit that people who eat vitamin-rich diets may be healthier simply because they take better care of themselves.
People love to get all excited about this kind of thing. Unfortunately, no one substance is going to save your life.
It all comes down to eating well. Boring, I know. Sorry.
What the experts say
"What we have is fairly good proof that foods high in antioxidants seem to be productive for certain diseases, such as certain cancers and diabetes. We see this in large-population studies, and we know that people consuming a diet high in whole gains and fruits and vegetables have less oxidated blood and show less oxidative stress. In all likelihood, though, it's not just the antioxidants that are being protective. The whole story still has to be worked out. A lot of supplements are unproven. Exercise actually raises oxidative stress, but then things seem to balance out. There's no magic bullet. We are not at the point where we can say that taking antioxidants will prevent certain diseases.'
CYRIL KENDALL , PhD, medical researcher, department of nutritional sciences, University of Toronto
"Some key antioxidants we hear about are vitamin E , vitamin C , selenium and the carotenoids [as in carrots ]. These are easily found in a lot of fruits and vegetables. We've also been hearing that green tea is filled with antioxidants similar to those found in berries and grapes . A good multivitamin will have a lot of antioxidants. It is controversial, but more studies show the benefits of vitamin E than not for those with cancer, heart disease and decreased immune systems. People are supplementing because they're questioning whether our fruits and vegetables have enough vitamins. Is our soil leached of those nutrients?'
CHERYL WOODMAN , naturopath, BSc, Toronto
"We've done work with foods like blueberries , leafy green vegetables, foods with a lot of colour. Feeding old rats blueberries for as little as two months can improve their performance on learning and memory tasks. We had a research paper that shows you can prevent damage from stroke as well. In my opinion, getting antioxidants from a food source is better than from a supplement. But I would recommend a multivitamin supplement like One-A-Day. There have been some studies with supplement such as vitamin E for Alzheimer's. They have not been highly successful. In animal studies it has been shown that blueberries can stop amyloid buildup [linked to Alzheimer's].'
PAULA BICKFORD , professor, Center for Aging and Brain Repair, U of South Florida College of Medicine, Tampa
"We focus on fruits and vegetables that are dark green and orange, carrots , squash , etc. Vitamin E is primarliy available from mangoes , Swiss chard and sweet potatoes as well as alternatives to meats such as nuts . And then, of course, vitamin C, primarily in citrus . People who smoke have a higher need for vitamin C because their body metabolizes it quicker. When it comes to supplements, people have to be careful not to take too much, because high doses can be toxic. And we don't know when you break them down whether they have the same effect as foods."
ERICA DiRUGGIERO , dietitian, Canadian Cancer Society, Ontario Division