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Why Does my Oxidant have to be SO Anti???

April 5, 2010

Here’s the second of three short critiques we’ve been assigned for “The Science of Food Farming and Flavors.”

The 2000s ushered in a whole new theater of eating and thinking about food.  With this has also come the mainstream introduction and promotion of lots and lots of new food products, additives, and nutrients.  However, there’s actually not really anything new about them besides the fact that a lot of these things (such as ginseng, ginko bilboa, taurine, etc) are now readily available to us in a lot of the products we, as Americans, consume on a regular basis.

Antioxidants, along with the aforementioned supplements and foodstuffs, are just another example of a molecule being thrust into the limelight in the last five to ten years.  For me, I had never really heard much about antioxidants until green tea became such a popular, mainstream beverage.  I enjoy tea and prefer it to coffee quite a bit, so once green tea was everywhere I started drinking the stuff close to a daily basis, especially at lunch time.  I found it was a great way to make it through my afternoons.  But we’re not here to talk about green tea; we’re here to discuss antioxidants, which green tea happens to be loaded with.

 

Green tea growing on a hillside. (quickblogcast.com)

 

Antioxidants are molecules whose primary function is to prevent the oxidation of other molecules within the human body.  Oxidation is a chemical reaction occurring within the body that results in the transfer of electrons from some substance to an oxidizing agent.  This oxidation reaction can lead to the release and production of molecules called free radicals, whose primary function is to set off chain reactions in the blood that damage cells.  This is not a good thing, and antioxidants work in opposition to this phenomena.

Once free radicals are present, antioxidants go to work.  “Antioxidants terminate these chain reactions by removing free radical intermediates, and inhibit other oxidation reactions by being oxidized themselves.  As a result, antioxidants are often reducing agents such as thiols, ascorbic acid, or polyphenols” (“Antioxidant”).  Because science believes that antioxidants may play some sort of roll in staving off diseases resulting from oxidation in the blood, antioxidants are used widely as ingredients in dietary supplements.  Two of the diseases they are believed to protect against are certain forms of cancer as well as coronary heart disease.

Originally, antioxidants were useful mostly in industrial processes to combat “…metal corrosion, the vulcanization of rubber, and the polymerization of fuels in the fouling of internal combustion engines” (“Antioxidant”).  A lot of early research involving antioxidants really had little to do with human biology.  Initially, the scientific focus was on determining their role in the oxidation of unsaturated fats, which can lead to whatever fat (meat) becoming rancid.  It wasn’t until the discovery of vitamins A, C, and E that antioxidants were able to figure prominently into human biology.  “Research into how vitamin E prevents the process of lipid peroxidation led to the identification of antioxidants as reducing agents that prevent oxidative reactions, often by scavenging reactive oxygen species before they can damage cells” (“Antioxidant”).

 

A strawbery field; my favorite source of antioxidants! (Not the field, the berries.) (treehugger.com)

 

Depending on who you ask, the jury may still be out as to whether or not there is considerable scientific basis for the benefit of antioxidants.  Here, I think, you have to consider the uses, or possible uses, of antioxidants.  The human “brain is uniquely vulnerable to oxidative injury due to its high metabolic rate and elevated levels of polyunsaturated lipids, the target of lipid peroxidation” (“Antioxidant”).  Because of this, antioxidants are often used in the treatment of various brain injuries such as reperfusion injury and brain trauma.  There is also a lot of investigation occurring in order to determine what, if any, effect that antioxidants have on people experiencing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and also, hearing loss on account of extended exposure to loud noise.

Lots of fruits and vegetables protect against heart disease and types of cancer, and these fruits and vegetables also subsequently have lots of antioxidants in them.  Research was conducted to see if the antioxidant molecules in these fruits and vegetables had anything to do with the reduction in the risk of disease, and the results were inconclusive .  There has been no clear, distinguishable effect on the diseases courtesy of antioxidants, so it is believed their positive effects may come from other substances in the fruits and vegetables.  There have been lots of other tests done involving antioxidants and how they effect certain parts of human biology relating to disease and health, and they too have produced rather inconclusive results.

Science is one of those fields that is constantly changing and evolving, and that also means certain things that at a time were thought to be true might not be anymore.  You could say this about antioxidants and not necessarily be right or wrong because so much of the science is now somewhat inconclusive in regard to what benefits these molecules may provide.  Because of this, I don’t feel that I can offer some sort of ringing endorsement to immediately run out to the store and buy all the berries and green tea your little paws can carry.  However, antioxidants, like pretty much everything else, are okay in moderation, and because no one really knows for sure, possibly good for you in moderation as well.  I think that is the most important thing to realize or take away from this here.  It recalls to mind Michael Pollan’s simplistically beautiful philosophy concerning food and eating in the post-modern age, “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  Apply that mantra with, possibly, a side of your favorite antioxidant, and you’ve got, I think, a pretty good recipe for human biological success and longevity.

 

Dr. Pollan, I still haven't gotten a response to my email, haha! C'moooooon man!

 


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