The Antioxidant Myth
Save money and get healthy by unleashing your own internal antioxidants.
Posted December 30, 2017 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Do you choose colorful vegetables, fruits and fruit juices in hopes that their antioxidants will destroy free radicals and fight inflammation?
Do you take expensive antioxidant supplements or plant extracts because they promise to help you ward off cancer and slow aging?
The antioxidant business is booming. What was already a 2.9 billion dollar industry in 2015 is expected to soar to 4.5 billion by 2022. This wild economic growth is fueled by the understandable human hope that we can improve our health simply by adding something magical to our diet.
We humans desperately want to believe in the power of these potent little plant products, so we bite. Even if we’re not sure how well they work or what they actually do, why not take them? What do we have to lose?
The antioxidant sales pitch goes like this:
Free radicals damage our cells from the inside out through a process called “oxidation” (true). Left unchecked, oxidation wreaks havoc with cellular machinery, including DNA, increasing our risk for cancer, aging, and other chronic diseases (true). Therefore, we should take ANTI-oxidants, to neutralize these dangerous free radicals before they can do us harm...
Makes sense, so it’s an easy sell.
The Antioxidant Myth
But the truth is that the antioxidant cure theory is just plain wrong. Here’s what the antioxidant commercials don’t tell you:
- Although antioxidants may work in test tubes, the vast majority don’t seem to work inside the human body.
- Most antioxidants have "poor bioavailability"—they are very difficult for us to absorb, are transformed into something else before absorption, and/or are rapidly eliminated from the body before they can reach our cells.
- Some antioxidants can be toxic in high doses; a good example is selenium.
In short, there's no scientific reason to believe that consuming non-essential antioxidants improves human health. The USDA went so far as to remove its antioxidant database for selected foods from its website due to:
...mounting evidence that the values indicating antioxidant capacity have no relevance to the effects of specific bioactive compounds, including polyphenols on human health…[antioxidant] values are routinely misused by food and dietary supplement manufacturing companies to promote their products and by consumers to guide their food and dietary supplement choices.
Yes, it is true that excess free radicals and oxidation can cause health problems over time. But consuming more antioxidants is NOT the answer. The answer is to understand what oxidation is and what causes it so you can fight it effectively with knowledge and common sense.
What Is Oxidation?
Oxidation is a natural process occurring constantly within our cells as a by-product of chemical reactions needed to extract energy from food. Free radicals also form when we are exposed to sunlight’s radiation.
Since some amount of oxidation is normal and natural, Mother Nature in her wisdom has armed our cells with their very own internal antioxidant called glutathione, ready, willing and able to mop up those pesky free radicals. Under normal circumstances, glutathione is sufficient to protect us from natural levels of oxidation, keeping oxidation and anti-oxidation forces in balance.
So why worry?
Refined Carbohydrates Increase Oxidation
We should worry because sugar and other refined carbohydrates are powerful promoters of free radical production and oxidation. These unnaturally concentrated sugars and starches overwhelm our cells’ chemical pathways, generating far more free radicals than glutathione can handle. (Processed foods may be the most important source of excess free radicals in our modern lives, but there are certainly others, including alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking.)
Refined carbohydrates throw us out of balance—they tilt our internal systems too far towards oxidation. As a result, it appears as if we need more antioxidant power than we already have.
Enter: antioxidant salespeople.
Nobody is going to get rich telling you to stop eating something. And nobody wants to be told they should stop eating something so delicious, convenient, inexpensive, and addictive as refined carbohydrates like sugar and flour.
A much sweeter message to swallow is: Keep eating sugar and take this magical plant product instead.
Turmeric Will Not Save You
Curcumin (found in turmeric spice) is just one example of a plant extract that is making some people a lot of money; a 4-oz shot of turmeric at a Whole Foods juice bar will cost you $4.00! According to a detailed review of curcumin chemistry, even if you take very high doses, it simply doesn’t make it into your bloodstream.
Curcumin performs so abysmally in studies that the authors of the review concluded:
To our knowledge, [curcumin] has never been shown to be conclusively effective in a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial for any indication. Curcumin is best typified, therefore, as a missile that continually blows up on the launch pad, never reaching the atmosphere or its intended target(s)…While these failures would normally end further research on its use as a therapeutic, they apparently have not deterred researchers interested in its development.
Is this innocent wishful thinking? Or is it something more complicated than that—perhaps the power of potential profit trumping logic and science?
Pom Wonderful™—Crazy UNhealthy
Worse yet is Pom Wonderful. This pomegranate-squishing company wants you to believe that their very expensive, sexy bottle of colorful, all-natural juice is just bursting with “relentlessly ravenous, free-radical-annihilating antioxidants” that will help protect you from cancer and aging.
Yes, Pom Wonderful is loaded with antioxidants—ellagitannins and anthocyanins, to be exact. But what percentage of the miraculous antioxidants within Pom Wonderful can we absorb into our bodies? Only about 0.2 percent (or 2/1000th) of the anthocyanins are absorbed, and the ellagitannins are transformed into something else before we have a chance to even try to absorb them.
So, what do you actually absorb from that 8-ounce curvaceous bottle of purple liquid? A whopping 32 grams of sugar—a powerful promoter of oxidation! You are in fact shelling out your hard-earned money to buy the OPPOSITE of what you were told you would get. Pom Wonderful does NOT fight free radicals—it literally causes more free radicals to form, increasing oxidative damage inside your body. Every time you drink it, you are accelerating aging and increasing your risk for cancer, diabetes, weight gain, and dementia. And Pom Wonderful is just one example of this dangerous snake oil marketing strategy. Any antioxidant supplement, beverage, extract or food that contains sugar promotes oxidation.
Don't Drink the Kool-Aid™
Get smart about your health. You don’t need an impostor of a wizard to sell you what you’ve had inside of you all along. Trust in the capacity of your own internal antioxidants. Give them a fighting chance by feeding them the foods they were designed to handle.
Eat real whole foods, and avoid refined carbohydrates like sugar, flour, fruit juice, and processed cereals as much as you possibly can. (For a more complete list click here.)
Stop throwing your money away on impotent extracts—the science is quite clear that high-tech plant powders and sexy bottles of juice will not save you. You are going to have to save yourself the old-fashioned way—by eating right. You can do it!
(Update 3/11/18: I added the paragraphs below in response to numerous comments and questions I received about this post.)
Are All Antioxidants Difficult to Absorb?
No. Essential nutrients with antioxidant properties such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium are absorbed and utilized by the human body. The article above focuses on non-nutrient antioxidants.
Do Antioxidant Supplements Have Any Benefits?
There are countless examples throughout history and within the scientific literature of human beings exploiting the naturally toxic and anti-nutritional properties of certain plant compounds to attempt to treat existing diseases such as arthritis, cancer, and such. This is essentially the practice of using plant compounds as drugs.
Often these compounds are extracted/concentrated and/or manufactured into special designer formulas that don't exist in nature and are then used at high doses to try to target the problem at hand. When taken in this way, these chemicals can have benefits, but they can also have side effects in some individuals, just as any drug can.
This *medicinal* use of plants is also very different than the *nutritional* use of plants — that is to say, eating whole plant foods or even taking simple plant extracts (such as curcumin) to try to improve your overall health and prevent disease in the first place. Many curcumin studies suggesting benefits in humans appear to have used specially-formulated curcumin supplements that have been altered in some special way to dramatically improve their absorption. It is also worth noting that compounds that are not absorbed at all still come into contact with cells within the digestive tract and may have real biological effects on gastrointestinal cells and the microbiome.
Should I Stop Taking My Antioxidant Supplement?
If you are using a plant extract such as curcumin and it a) helps you feel better in ways you can identify and b) doesn't give you side effects, I am not suggesting you need to stop taking it. That is up to you and your health advisers.
My concern is that many people spend their hard-earned money on plant antioxidants simply because they believe they will reduce their risk of disease in the future by fighting free radicals/oxidation. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence to support that practice, and there are far more effective ways to improve your antioxidant balance.
If you take an antioxidant supplement and it doesn't give you side effects or cost more than you can afford, then there's probably no harm done. I just want you to have the information you need to make informed choices about your money and your health.