Nutra Tamasha: Antioxidants – Science or fairy tales?

grapefruit-1180216Antioxidants! Those colorful little pills of immortality. Those iridescent capsules filled with promises of eternal health and never-ending youth.

Or are they just filled with lies and worthless crap?

Did you really believe you could become immortal by simply popping a capsule of antioxidants every day? Seriously? Are you that dumb?

What are these antioxidants anyway?

The human body uses nutrients and oxygen as fuel.  It also uses oxygen to help the immune system combat disease.  These normal processes in the body create some unstable and energetic by-products called ‘free radicals’.  The fancy term is “reactive oxygen species”, often abbreviated by nutra-peddlers as ROS, just to confuse you.

Left to themselves, free radicals can damage your body cells and may affect your DNA. Therefore, free radicals are believed to be responsible for some of our ailments.

When combined with elevated sugar levels in the blood, as it happens with diabetes, free radicals can potentially be quite nasty to your body.  The scientific term is “oxidative stress”.  If you see a peeled apple turning brown, know that oxidative stress is making that happen.

All this is well known to science, since many decades.

Free radicals are aggressively advertised by nutra-peddlers as terrible villains that will strike you dead – if you don’t buy whatever they’re peddling.

What the peddlers of nutra-crap won’t tell you is that free radicals are also useful to you. They help your body fight off germs and may increase your life-span in many ways.

As it turns out, oxidative stress may be good for you.

What the peddlers also won’t tell you is that your body has its own enzymatic defence system against free radicals. In fact, your body has a highly evolved defence mechanism to neutralise free radicals, and it does so quite well.

So why should I buy these expensive anti-oxidants in a bottle?

Exactly.

Free radicals have been around quite literally since the dawn of life. Almost 200 million years ago, when plants first evolved, they developed their own defensive molecules to deal with free radicals. These antioxidants, like ascorbic acid (vitamin C), tocopherols (vitamin E), polyphenols, flavanoids and so on, are still to be found in modern-day plants.

Theoretically therefore, by eating plants and fruits that are rich in antioxidants, we can help our bodies combat our own free radicals.

However, if you are sensible and eat plants and fruits, then how do the nutra-peddlers make their money?

So, what they do is to extract these anti-oxidants, patent those extracts, put those extracts into capsules or tablets, or “health” drinks, or what-have-you, and laugh all the way to their respective banks, as you guzzle all that stuff.

The reality of antioxidants in a bottle is …

Science says NO!

The only way to settle the question scientifically is by long-term controlled clinical studies. Since the past two decades, hundreds of clinical trials have been conducted, involving thousands of human subjects.

Here’s the gist of all those mega trials across the world:

The benefits of vitamin E are inconclusive. At high doses, vitamin E may increase the chances of internal bleeding, especially in patients who are on cardiovascular medication (like me).

There is no solid evidence that vitamin C prevents or cures a cold, or any other ailment for that matter.

Beta-carotene actually increased mortality and increased the incidence of cancer in some people.

This is what the US government’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has to say:

“research has not shown antioxidant supplements to be beneficial in preventing diseases”.

No need to blindly believe me. Read the entire report here.

And this is what the American Heart Association says:

“The existing scientific database does not justify routine use of antioxidant supplements for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease”.

And here is the original report in ravishing detail.

Fact or hype?

That hasn’t stopped nutra-peddlers from selling antioxidants as if they’re Mankind’s last hope. Many have concocted new ‘concentrates’, which, they claim, provide the same benefits as real fruits and vegetables.

Use your common sense, will you? Anti-oxidants are not the only useful things in fruits and vegetables. You get loads of fiber, vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates and many other nutrients that your body needs. Even the skins and seeds are useful.

Do you think it is really possible to condense all these useful ingredients into a tiny pill?

I’ve tried myself, for years. It’s just not possible, believe me.

And why take all the trouble and expense anyway, when Nature has already put all those antioxidants into delicious, easily available and inexpensive natural containers – called fruits and vegetables?

Bottom line

The long-term benefit of any single antioxidant in a bottle has never been conclusively established, beyond reasonable scientific doubt.  Never.

Moral

Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables!

DSC04344
The best antioxidants that money can buy!

If you’re willing to waste two thousand rupees on a few grams of carrot extract or a few ounces of an anti-oxidant drink, you might as well eat real carrots for one full year with the same cash … and get more benefits.

In general, most of the non-green and brightly colored fruits and vegetables you see in your supermarket are excellent sources of anti-oxidants.

Thus: Oranges and lemons (ascorbic acid), yellow or red capsicums (flavanoids), oily fish from the sea (sardines, salmon, vitamin E), seaweed sheets or edible algae (vitamin E), grains, peaches, mangoes, nuts, grapes, coffee, tea, and on and on.

Heard of Wikipedia? Here’s a huge list of foods that are rich in antioxidants, and far better and cheaper than patented nutra-crap in a bottle. Most of these foods can be seen at your local grocer’s, or in my country, at roadside shops.

And here, from my own blog, is one of the best sources of antioxidants that you can find.

Sorry, but immortality doesn’t come in a bottle … not yet anyway.

Cheers … Srini.

Up next: The Weight-loss Hoax.

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