Antioxidants: Is the hype justified?


Twenty-five years ago the term “antioxidant” was new to the public. Today it’s big business, with sales of products making antioxidant-related claims reaching $65 billion in the U.S. in 2011.

You’ll find antioxidant claims made not just for dietary supplements, but also for everything from juice, cereal, and power bars to tea, chocolate, and even . “Antioxidant”—a substance that helps mop up cell-damaging free radicals—has become synonymous with overall good health and .

A more recent trend is for companies to advertise specific antioxidant levels or “scores,” or to compare their products to others in antioxidant power. For instance, new cereals from Silver Palate boast 7,300 ORAC units per 100 grams, while Mystic Harvest Purple Corn Tortilla Chips list 6,000 ORAC units (ORAC, which stands for oxygen radical absorbance capacity, is one of several measures of antioxidant status developed by scientists). A baobab fruit powder that you add to oatmeal, yogurt, or other foods lists an ORAC value of 1,400 per gram. And tea extracts from Green Cell Technologies claim to have ORAC scores of up to 1.7 million per 100 grams.

It’s hard to say what all those numbers mean. But they probably don’t mean a whole lot in terms of health. The science and significance of antioxidants is much more complicated than a single number on a package can convey. The FDA has issued warnings against Lipton and other companies for making misleading and illegal claims about antioxidants—but many other iffy ones slip through the cracks.

Alphabet soup

Despite all the label claims, there’s no standardized method for measuring antioxidant status and no official definitions for antioxidant capacity, ability, activity, power, efficiency, or other words you might see on packages or websites. Rather, scientists have developed a variety of tests, all with four-letter acronyms—besides ORAC, there are TEAC, TOSC, FRAP, TRAP, and others. These don’t necessarily measure the same things or provide consistent results. For instance, a 2009 study in Food Chemistry noted that TEAC, which is simpler and cheaper, underestimates the antioxidant capacity of some foods, compared to ORAC.

Written By: MedicalXpress
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  1. It always makes me laugh the way some people(without any knowledge of science) embrace words like organic ,and more recently anti-oxidant.
    Throughout my life I’ve listened to various tits(especially vegetarians) who try to convince me that they have some esoteric knowledge of long life after they light up a cigarette.
    Another group I bumped into a shop in Manchester(called the eighth day) waxed lyrically about the good natural products within the shop and then said to his pal that he’d bought some amphetamine that another of his pals had brewed in the kitchen!

  2. Couple of things to add. Yes, antioxidants are necessary to react with spare oxygen and oxygen- based molecules that essentially destroy tissue, cause cancer and aging (seriously, forcing us to breath and be dependant on the stuff which kills us? Which idiot thought THAT was an intelligent design?).

    However there are 2 main types – phenolic and aminic. They work best when they are in a system together – a ratio of about 10 aminic to 1 phenolic can increase the effectiveness of the aminic one by about 20 fold by helping it regenerate (a process known as synergism). However phenolic compounds also break down into quinones which also have anti-cancer and medicinal properties (specifically malaria – found in tonic water), wheras aminic ones have a much, much wider range and can break down into other products, some of which can be quite harmful – particularly synthetic aminics which are designed to generally operate in much harsher conditions than found in the human body. 

    So yes, the labels by themselves don’t really tell you anything. If in doubt, easier to play it safe and stick to a balanced diet as the article concluded.

  3. I was under the impression world health was on the rise the past century. It’s amazing to see all the articles and TV programs on health issues that keep telling us that our health is in danger and that we are all overweight and that a horrible and painful death is just around the corner if we keep eating the way we do. That doesn’t add up with the fact that more people live longer and in better health.
    Of course “they” will say that it is because of the vigilant attitude towards our health we keep sharp and thus cause the improvements in our overall health. The problem is that all the information we get is negative and no one mentions the improvements. They only focus on obesity, high blood pressure and the likes giving us the impression everything is about to go ballistic.
    Now that I mentioned obesity anyway, is it really as bad as is being claimed? I actually know only a few people that I would consider to be obese (They are very happy people b.t.w.). But since the body mass index has been introduced more and more people are suddenly considered to be obese. I recently, just for fun, calculated the index and was also considered overweight. I was baffled. I still wear small size jeans and need a belt to keep them on. I do have a little tummy (some women like that I have noticed) but that fits my age. I have made it to the right old age of 42 already. So what is al this about?
    I never bought in to the anti-oxidant hype. I think eating a wide variety of foods will provide me with all the nutrients I need, including anti-oxidants, because they are part of the natural eco system anyway.
    Well, ones this scam (I think it’s a scam) has been eradicated, an other one will take its place. Anti-oxidants won’t help agains that.

  4. I hate the constant appeal to science/medical authority in advertising.

    That said, my kids are bored shitless by my outbursts at TV adverts:

    “What do they mean; Now with added TRUETONIUM?!’ What the fuck is TRUETONIUM????  Quick, Google the periodic table, let’s see if we can find TRUETONIUM shall we!”

    “Give it a rest, Dad, calm down it’s just an advert…”



  5. Anvil,

    My kids now do it for me, very satisfying. They can smell snake oil pretty well from the waffle.

    I hate the constant appeal to science/medical authority in advertising.

    That said, my kids are bored shitless by my outbursts at TV adverts:

    Mine are silent  – literally -I keep the remote “mute” button within reach for advert breaks.

  7. ‘Bad Science’ talks a lot about antioxidants, mainly that they are overhyped.  One research study was shut down early as it appeared that consuming high levels of antioxidants was causing the test group to have more health problems.

  8. I’m very interested in nutrition and health.
    Yes, the hype is justified if you’re running one of these lucrative marketing scams. Otherwise not.

    I no longer bother with the details like antioxidants or things like electrolytes. (Brawndo – the thirst mutilator. “It’s got electrolytes”.)

    From what I’ve been able to establish the entire issue of healthy nutrition reduces to what you don’t eat, rather than what you do eat. If you eat a sufficient amount of nothing frequently enough, then what little else you consume won’t cause as much harm.

    But there’s no commercial driver for not consuming. Hence the focus on health is based on the relentless marketing and supply of treatments, additives, supplements, ‘balanced’ nutritional recommendations. Things are seriously out of control when pretty much every workplace kitchen cupboard is stuffed full of containers of expensive protein supplements owned by pretty much every young, single, male in the office.

    An economic solution would be a form of institutional structure where keeping clients healthy attracts commercial revenue. But there isn’t much hope for that as long as health is politicised, which it always will be for as long as people are deeply afraid of getting sick and dying and therefore seek a higher, infallible authority to insulate them from reality. (Same situation with religion being politicised.) The politics of fear and greed means that dysfunctional political institutions, or corrupt politically-connected institutions, will always displace any alternative forms of commercial structure.

    To fix this problem you need to prevent everything from being politicised. Which means no politics. You can only do this by eliminating the idiocracy, getting rid of politicians, and by preventing anyone else from taking their place.

    I’m not sure what the political process is for arranging this. Perhaps it might happen if people could be cured of their fear of disease and death using some kind of pharmaceutical or dietary supplement with this psychotropic effect. The government should do something about it.

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