Antioxidant supplements are big business:

As of 1999  in the US [1], the vitamin C  market was worth $843 Million; the Vitamin E  market $731 Million.

Quoting Nutraceutical World [2]:  “…Overall, for the estimated $25 billion U.S. dietary supplement industry, the prognosis is good, very good…[for expansion]”  That was in 2010.

$25 billion…All right, nutraceuticals are  bought not only for their antioxidant properties, but those figure prominently in the marketing ads.

When the market numbers for antioxidants are so high, the natural question is: How much  of our need of antioxidant supplements is the results of being bombarded by adds and infomercials assuring us that our longevity is at stake?

In this post we shall take a look  at  the basis for the need of antioxidant foods and antioxidant supplements, as well as  at the controversy comparing  their benefits.

For this,  we need to take a look at what is oxidation:

1.0 The oxidation process: The good, the bad and the ugly...

The first image that the word “oxidation” evokes can be seen below:


Your rusting knife...(Wikipedia Commons)

Who wants that happening to their body…

Fact is, in biology, not all oxidation is bad. It is even crucial in maintaining life critical processes such as:
  • Cellular respiration
  • Breathing or Physiological respiration
So why is  there this generally accepted creed  about needing more antioxidants?
One has to understand  the Reduction-Oxidation (Redox) chemical reactions that have to occur in most  living creatures (certain bacteria do not breathe, others have a sulfur based metabolism). Redox reactions are the key to using the oxygen that we breathe.
 But the redox processes create free radicals [3],  molecules with unpaired electrons that cause the radicals to be highly chemically reactive. The free radicals then can, and do, cause oxidative stress, which is damaging to many body tissues:
Those free radicals are normally cleaned by the body itself generating or using anti-oxidants as reducing agents. In other words, the body’s natural antioxidants  “passivate”  or neutralize the free radicals.
So how did our bodies survive before there were antioxidant supplements ? (!)
2.0  The natural compounds defending against the free radicals
2.1  First, there are very powerful antioxidants that are manufactured by  your body, in other words, they are endogenous [4].
Here is a short list of endogenous antioxidants, where you might recognize some heavyweights in the supplement market:
Glutathione, Alpha-lipoic acid, Coenzyme Q, Ferritin, Uric acid, Bilirubin, Metallothioneine, L-carnitine and Melatonin.
2.2 Second,  there are antioxidant you have to obtain from food: Vitamins, particularly  A, C, and E
Vitamins are organic compounds required  in small amounts that  your body does not synthesize, but has to obtain from food. That definition of vitamin is a litle loose since vitamin D can actually be manufactured by your skin under sun light.
 2.3 Third, the enzyme systems:  In addition to the previous molecules or compounds, some  enzyme systems also help scavenge free radicals by catalizing or facilitating chemical reactions that neutralize the  reactive oxygen species or free radicals.
Here some familiar names of such enzymes, popularized by the supplement industry:
  • Superoxide dismutase (SOD)
  • Glutathione enzyme systems
Bioenzymes are manufactured by your body or obtained from your food.  But what  if your body does not manufacture enough or the food is enzyme poor?
3.0 Two possible paths to give your body a hand:
3.1  Choose food with appropriate antioxidant capabilities, that get to the nasty ROS without impeding the life sustaining oxidation processes. The food should contain the right enzymes, the right vitamins, and phytochemicals
The phytochemicals has gained a lot of notoriety lately.  They are plant based compounds such as the now famous Flavonoids,  Resveratrol, Curcumin, Polyphenols. Polyphenol anti-oxidants might not owe their health benefits directly to antioxidant properties at least not in vivo, (out of the lab and in your body). Studies in [5,6] demonstrate the complexity of assessing the health benefit source.
Note that all these antioxidants are not necessarily good for everybody. For example, Curcumin [Turmeric] and anemia might not be a good match…[7]
In addition, the belief that some level of oxidative stress is bad for all people all the time has been challenged by studies that claim that some level of oxidative stress keeps your body defense mechanisms on their toes and alert  [8]

Your well packaged polyphenol (

3.2  Second possibility: Take supplements…

Click here to link to Part (II)  and read about the antioxidant supplements issues!

Discuss this with your Dietitian!
  1. Over The Counter Nutritional Supplements US market;1999
  2. Nutraceutical World; Dietary Supplements; 2010
  3. Wikipedia; Redox reactions
  4. Advance in Experimental Medical Biology.; “Endogenous antioxidants and radical scavengers.” ; 2010
  5. Advance in Experimental Medical Biology.“Flavonoids in foods as in vitro and in vivo antioxidants.”; 1998
  6. In Vivo ; “Comparative radical-scavenging activity of curcumin and tetrahydrocurcumin with thiols as measured by the induction period method.” ; Nov 2007
  7. Blood, Curcumin, a cancer chemopreventive and chemotherapeutic agent, is a biologically active iron chelatorJan 2009
  8. JAMA ; “Mortality in Randomized Trials of Antioxidant Supplements for Primary and Secondary Prevention” ; 2007

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