“Antioxidant” is not synonym for “healthy”

The antioxidant myth is too easy to swallow

People are hooked on the fallacy that ‘antioxidant’ is a byword for ‘healthy’ – perhaps because the truth is less appealing

When the press release arrived in our inboxes, we knew what would happen next. A controversial Nobel laureate had stated, in a peer-reviewed paper he described as “among my most important work”, that antioxidant supplements “may have caused more cancers than they have prevented”.

Even the most fad-friendly sections of the UK media were bound to cover the story.

In reality, Professor James Watson – one of the DNA double-helix’s founding fathers – was only restating what we at Cancer Research UK (along with many others) have been pointing out for years. Large studies have repeatedly shown that, with the possible exception of vitamin D, antioxidant supplements have negligible positive effect on healthy people, at least in terms of important things such as preventing people getting cancer or dying prematurely. And some supplements – notably vitamins A, E and beta-carotene – even seem to slightly raise the risk of disease and early death.

It’s a topic we at Cancer Research UK come back to again and again on our science blog and on our social media pages. But as a quick trawl of Twitter reveals, huge swaths of the public remain convinced that “antioxidant” is a byword for “healthy”.

I chuckled at that use of the word “Goldacresque” in this piece referring to Ben Goldacre. His book “Bad Science” was an eyeopener for me regarding anti-oxidant hype. The truth is, adverts make unsupported claims about antioxidants’ benefits. But people still cling to the notion that they are the best thing ever and we need more! So, eat healthy chocolate, drink wine, eat and drink berries, etc.

Many want to at least TRY to eat healthy. The easier it is to choose yummy foods, the better. So we see products that seem good in moderation, hyped as GOOD FOR YOU – particularly chocolate and wine – “rich in antioxidants” – with a suggestion you eat MORE of them. (Google the term “rich in antioxidants” to see how popular media latched onto this phrase to list products you MUST add to your shopping list.)

Incidentally, antioxidant is a molecule that inhibits the oxidation of other molecules. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that transfers an electron (or hydrogen molecule) from a substance to the oxidizing agent. These reactions can produce free radical molecules which are highly reactive and can be catalysts for cell damage. (Source: Wikipedia) But the idea that this process is overall bad for our health and we should overindulge on antioxidants is NOT proven to be valid. So, from disease prevention to anti-aging promises, the science does not back up these claims.

Science Based Medicine: Antioxidant Hype and Reality

Also, a must read is Bad Science

  4 comments for ““Antioxidant” is not synonym for “healthy”

  1. One Eyed Jack
    January 10, 2013 at 5:31 PM

    The chemist in me must comment.

    A hydrogen molecule (actually a hydrogen ion) is not an electron. It is a proton.

  2. January 10, 2013 at 5:38 PM

    Can you check the wikipedia link because I found that confusing too. Why would that be written like that unless they mean an oxidizing environment?

  3. One Eyed Jack
    January 10, 2013 at 6:11 PM

    The Wikipedia entry for “Antioxidant” is poorly worded, but does not separate “or hydrogen” with parenthesis, changing the meaning. It’s odd that the sentence includes hydrogen at all. It would be better to simply say “Oxidation is a chemical reaction that transfers electrons from one substance (the reducing agent) to another substance (the oxidizing agent).”

    I assume they mention hydrogen because oxygen (the source of the term oxidation) and hydrogen are the most common and frequently used examples to explain the process. However, the transfer of the electron is the key point.

    It’s actually a simple reaction that is made complicated by terminology.

  4. Aljax
    January 15, 2013 at 7:52 PM

    Hmm… As I recall, Oxidation is the chemical reaction of COMBINING a substance WITH OXYGEN. Period.

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