For over a decade, the American consumer has been bombarded with ads lauding the supposed beneficial health effects of dozens of antioxidants. A typical claim is that these compounds protect against free radicals that may be responsible for causing cancer or that they prevent cellular damage and thereby slow the aging process. Many of these claims have become popularly accepted without question. And as ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava notes, Since many of these supposed miracle compounds are vitamins, people assume that loading up on them won t hurt even if they re not effective antioxidants.
Yet despite their popularity among many consumers, the supposed health effects of antioxidants have not been validated by reputable scientific studies.
A recent panel at this year s Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Wellness Conference suggested that the average consumer has very little idea what an antioxidant actually is or does. When eight participants at the conference were asked what antioxidants do, the question drew mostly blank stares. One person even wondered if antioxidants killed germs. ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom notes, I suspect that very few consumers trying to protect themselves from free radicals have any idea what one is. Nor that many free radicals are essential for a number of routine and essential biochemical reactions in the body. The most important role of antioxidants is, in fact, their ability to sell products as a marketing tool.
ACSH friend Dr. David Seres, the Director of Medical Nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center points out, The assumption that if it is a vitamin or nutrient, it cannot hurt, is far from true. He expands on this idea, explaining that, when tested properly in randomized trials, many antioxidants have actually proven to be more harmful than helpful. For example, he says, vitamin E supplementation predisposes some people to prostate cancer, while vitamin C is associated with an increase in the incidence of lung cancer in smokers. The current laws have created a nutritional Wild West; these substances should be far better regulated.