Antioxidants and superfoods – what you’re really buying

Have you ever been in the health food section of the supermarket and noticed they’re charging an arm and a leg for a fancy bag of rice?  Well, welcome to the world of superfoods!  Marketing methods attempt to create catchy sales pitches they can add to product packaging to make products stand out from the crowd, and then a significant dollar markup is added for the meaningless benefits promised.  Normally you may struggle to sell a weird looking, tangy berry, but if you can say that it’s grown in the free air of Tibet, touched only by the morning sun and makes promises that sound like eternal youth, well, then you’ve got a saleable product.

2593029638_31f818f2d9_b.jpg

Marketing methods attempt to create catchy sales pitches they can add to product packaging to make products stand out from the crowd, and then a significant dollar markup is added for the meaningless benefits promised. (I1)

A common claim made by marketers of superfoods is that a product has skyrocketing levels of antioxidants.  Despite the fact that an apple probably has more of these molecules than almost any other food, it doesn’t stop someone, somewhere from cashing in.  What are antioxidants, and are they useful at all?  In short, yes.  Antioxidants are essential to maintain normal cell physiological function.  For example, an antioxidant found in almost every cell in our body, Superoxide dismutase, prevents ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) from developing in young children.  Compounds known as free radicals are produced during cell metabolism, the chemical reactions that occur in a cell.  Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons, making them highly reactive with other compounds in the cell.  This reactivity can cause damage to vital structures and organelles within the cell, and can result in death of the cell.  This is where antioxidants are vital; antioxidants react with the free radicals, preventing them from causing damage to the cell.

Generally, your body has everything it needs to function effectively by using the nutrients from a healthy, balanced diet.

If antioxidants are so good for you, then what’s wrong with companies selling them in the form of blueberries or acai?  Well, before you bathe yourself in green tea, the evidence for supplemented antioxidants remains ambiguous at best.  Studies show that additional intake of antioxidants, beyond what is normally consumed in a healthy diet, does not result in a decrease in all-cause mortality, cancer or have any effect on cardiovascular health (1).  Generally, your body has everything it needs to function effectively by using the nutrients from a healthy, balanced diet.  As with many nutritional supplements, if you’re eating well, these ‘superfood’ supplements are just going to go straight though you instead of being absorbed into the body, even if you did pay a 200% markup and it promised to alkalise your cells (note, actually alkalising your body would be very, very dangerous).

Superoxide_dismutase_2_PDB_1VAR.png

This antioxidant, Superoxide Dismutase, is essential to our survival, and is present in almost every one of our trillion or so cells. (I2)

So don’t be fooled by the hype; you don’t need to spend money on antioxidant supplements.  Save the money; spend it on a new bike instead!

References

(1) Shekelle PG, Morton SC, Jungvig LK, Udani J, Spar M, Tu W, J Suttorp M, Coulter I, Newberry SJ, Hardy M (Apr 2004). “Effect of supplemental vitamin E for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease”. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 19 (4): 380–9. doi:10.1111/j.1525-1497.2004.30090.x. PMC 1492195 PMID 15061748.

Attributions

(I1) Photo by Cory Doctorow / CC BY SA 3.0

(I2) By Fvasconcellos (talk · contribs) – From PDB entry 1VAR. More information:Borgstahl GE, Parge HE, et al. (April 1996). “Human mitochondrial manganese superoxide dismutase polymorphic variant Ile58Thr reduces activity by destabilizing the tetrameric interface”. Biochemistry 35 (14): 4287–97. DOI:10.1021/bi951892w. PMID 8605177., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15333746

About Tim_Davis@Pushys

I'm a Science Graduate and Medical student at the University of Queensland, specialising in anatomy and physiology. More importantly, I'm all for any type of riding; road, mountain, dirt jumping, I love it all! Let me know if there is anything you want to know about nutrition and health, and I'll do my best to help you out!

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