What are antioxidants?

by Donna Berry
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Today’s consumers expect more from their foods in terms of nutrition that boosts health and wellness. They are looking for so-called superfoods, with the most prominent attribute being the presence of dietary antioxidants.

Formulators add antioxidants to foods for one of two reasons. The first is to assist with product quality and ensure shelf life. For example, antioxidants can retard the breakdown of fats and oils that leads to rancidity. The other reason is to use the food system as a delivery vehicle for powerful molecules associated with reducing cellular damage in the body.

Antioxidants occur naturally in everything from cocoa to tea and fruits to seeds. According to research from the Food Marketing Institute, nearly one out of five (19%) consumers sought out antioxidant-rich-type food claims in 2015. This is an impressive figure for compounds that are very small constituents of foods and food ingredients and, for the most part, cannot be legally quantified.

Antioxidants help the body fight off damage from free radicals, molecules with one or more unpaired electrons, making them especially reactive. Free radicals are thought to wreak havoc on the body by causing cells to grow and reproduce abnormally. They result from oxidation, a natural process that occurs when we digest food, exercise or simply breathe. Living in environments with pollution, radiation and cigarette smoke also increases free radical production.

The more free radicals in the body, the greater the potential for irrevocable damage. That’s because once free radicals form, they can start a chain reaction, damaging healthy cells, which in turn can contribute to various afflictions, everything from wrinkles to cancer. Antioxidants terminate these chain reactions by being oxidized themselves, thus preventing free radical damage.

Consuming antioxidants via foods or dietary supplements can assist with preventing the chain reaction from ever starting. Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, senior scientist, Antioxidants Research Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, and professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said it is possible to deliver an efficacious amount of antioxidants to consumers via baked goods.

“However, given the wide array of potential antioxidant ingredients in the market, there will be differences in how readily some can be incorporated into baked goods with regard to amount, appearance, flavor, stability, texture, etc.,” Dr. Blumberg said.

There are also constraints with marketing the presence of antioxidants in foods because there are limitations to quantifying antioxidant content and measuring efficaciousness. The same is true with content claims. For the most part, these should be limited to the three vitamins with known antioxidant activities: fat-soluble vitamins A and E, and water-soluble vitamin C. That’s because these vitamins have Recommended Dietary Allowances, making it possible to use claims such as “good,” “rich,” “excellent” or other content source as defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The claim should be about the vitamin content, not antioxidant activity. FDA is hyper vigilant about any claims made for antioxidants on packages or advertising materials. It does not allow statements such as “high in antioxidants” or “antioxidant rich” because there is no Daily Value for antioxidants. Further, FDA has very strict guidelines for use of qualified health claims as well as suggestive language on packaging.

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