The term ‘antioxidant’ has become a popular buzzword among health circles in recent years. If you pick up a health magazine, chances are you will read that eating foods containing antioxidants are good for our health.
But what exactly are they? Why do we need them? And where do we get them?
Free Radicals – the bad guys
To understand the benefits of antioxidants, let’s dip into a bit of basic chemistry. Molecules in our body are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. Electrons are the ones that provide the outer case of the molecules. With us so far?
Free radicals are nasty little molecules that are missing an electron or two, making them unstable and highly reactive. Once formed, free radicals attack the body. Occasionally this can be helpful, like when the immune system uses them to kill disease-causing viruses and bacteria. However most free radicals cause widespread damage leading to cell damage, disease progression and aging.
The problem with free radicals is that to become nice and stable again, they steal electrons from another molecule in the body, which then turns that molecule into a free radical. This starts a chain reaction that is hard for the body to get on top of.
Until antioxidants step in..
Antioxidants – the good guys
Antioxidants neutralise free radicals by donating one of their own electrons, which ends the chain reaction and significantly reduces the effects of free radical damage in the body. The beauty of it is that antioxidants do not become free radicals themselves because they are stable in either form.
Scientists have found that oxidative stress caused by free radicals has a link in the development of diseases such as cancer, arthritis, cataracts, diabetes and heart disease, whereas antioxidants provide a protective effect against these.
While the body’s natural defences and repair systems try to control the destruction caused by free radicals, its not always 100% effective and gets worse with age. This is where the
body’s dietary sources of antioxidants can help.
Antioxidants in our foods
Some vitamins act as antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, and beta-carotene. Other carotenoids including lycopene and lutein play a role too, as well as the mineral selenium.
Foods containing these nutrients are pretty easy to come by, but what about antioxidant supplements? While scientists are pretty clever, they still haven’t quite got to the bottom of what makes the antioxidant action of food sources so powerful, which makes it difficult to replicate in a supplement. In some cases, the level of antioxidants in some supplements has even proven to be harmful to health and the current evidence does not support the use of antioxidant supplements in the general population.
The Nutrition Foundation of New Zealand suggests that the safest and most effective source of antioxidants is food, by eating a range of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and nuts, each day. Including:
Fruits – berries, pomegranates and citrusVegetables – kale, spinach and Brussels sproutsGrains – Millet and oatsLegumes – pinto beans and soybeansWalnutsTea, coffee and Cocoa
Check out our recipes for some berry inspiration, or try our berry veg mix in smoothies to tick both the fruit and veggie box.
Whitney and Rolfes (2011). Antioxidant nutrients in disease prevention (12ed, pg 376-380). In Understanding nutrition 12 e 2011. Wadworth Centage Learning.NZ