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