News stories full of the benefits of antioxidants have many people searching store shelves for bottles of pills to fulfill their nutritional needs. While it’s true that antioxidants are good for the body, there is limited evidence to support taking antioxidants in pills instead of eating antioxidant-rich foods.
Antioxidants and Free Radicals
Antioxidants are natural substances that can help the body fight off damage to cells caused by free radicals. Free radicals occur naturally in the body when food is broken down for use or is stored. Free radicals are also produced by contact with certain chemicals such as tobacco smoke, contaminants in the environment, or radiation. Free radicals are unstable particles that can cause damage to cell membranes and the DNA inside the cell. When this happens, the cell may not function the way it is supposed or may die. This damage to cells contributes to a variety of health concerns including aging, cancer, and numerous other diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, eye disease, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Antioxidants are the body’s natural defense against the damage caused by free radicals. The body is able to produce some antioxidants, and obtains many more from the foods we eat. Many antioxidants are also available as dietary supplements as tablets or capsules. Some supplements contain synthetic or man-made variations on natural antioxidants. Scientists have not determined whether the body is able to process and use antioxidants that are taken as a supplement. Even when natural antioxidants in foods are used to make supplements, scientists are concerned that the beneficial properties may be lost during the manufacturing process.
Food Containing Antioxidants
The good news is that many foods that are part of a well-balanced diet are rich in antioxidants including these:
• Fruits –Some of the best sources of antioxidants are berries including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and cranberries. Other fruits that contain antioxidants include apples (with the peel), avocados, cherries, green and red pears, plums (fresh or dried), pineapple, and kiwi.
• Vegetables – Good choices include artichokes, spinach, red cabbage, potatoes (with the peel), sweet potatoes, and broccoli. Vegetables can be eaten raw or cooked although some studies indicate that cooking may increase antioxidant properties in some vegetables.
• Beans – Black, pinto, red, and kidney beans are all good sources of antioxidants.
• Nuts – Tree nuts including walnuts, pistachios, pecans, hazelnuts, and almonds are good sources of antioxidants.
• Grains – Products made from oats generally contain more antioxidants than those made with other grains.
• Herbs – Cooking with ground cloves, cinnamon, ginger, dried oregano leaf, and turmeric powder can add antioxidants to your foods.
• Drinks – Green tea is often recommended as a good source of antioxidants. Other drinks include coffee, red wine, and some fruit juices including pomegranate.
• Chocolate – Dark chocolate contains more antioxidants than most fruits or vegetables.
Antioxidants and the Skin
Vitamins C and E are also powerful antioxidants that are found in foods, supplements, and even skin creams. Claims have been made that these vitamins in lotions can help reduce the effects of sun damage on the skin and may even prevent skin cancer. Science has not been able to prove these claims to date. Skin creams containing vitamins C and E as well as the mineral selenium appear to help reduce damage to the skin caused by the sun. But most products contain only very small amounts of these antioxidants, if any. In addition, antioxidants are not absorbed well through the skin, so any benefits will be short-lived. These vitamins have not been proven to protect against skin cancer.