Antioxidants and free radicals are household names today, though this weren’t always the case. It actually wasn’t until the 1990s that people got wind of the fact that free radical damage was linked to a whole slew of health conditions like cancer, heart disease, vision loss and virtually every chronic disease.

No wonder that immediately following, we saw an enormous marketing campaign in health products that has lasted until today.

Initially foods and supplements were simply advertised as, “Rich in Antioxidants,” now there’s an entire line of antioxidant supplements and complexes on the market. It’s actually become a $500 million dollar industry that continues to grow. (1) It goes without saying that the term “antioxidant” is HUGE bucks!

The Free Radical – Antioxidant Connection

Free radicals trigger a damaging chain reaction and – according to Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston –

“[They] are dangerous because they don’t just damage one molecule. One free radical can set off a whole chain reaction. When a free radical oxidizes a fatty acid, it changes that fatty acid into a free radical, which then damages another fatty acid. It’s a very rapid chain reaction.” (2)

Eventually, this cascade can overwhelm the immune system, which puts people at high risk of developing a number of diseases including everything from Alzheimer’s to cancer. As research continues to show that people who include few antioxidant-rich foods in their diet are at greater risk for developing these types of free radical related chronic conditions, antioxidants like polyphenols have become in high demand.

With more than 5,000 varieties in foods, polyphenols are the largest class of antioxidants that are technically water-soluble plant metabolites containing 15 carbon atoms.

Essentially, being the active substances found in many medicinal plants, polyphenols have a significant effect on many enzymes and cell receptors. Some terms you may be familiar with include:

  • Flavonols
  • Flavones
  • Isoflavones
  • Flavanones
  • Anthocyanidins
  • Flavonoids (3)

According to one study:

“Many flavonoids are shown to have antioxidative activity, free-radical scavenging capacity, coronary heart disease prevention, and anticancer activity, while some flavonoids exhibit potential for anti-human immunodeficiency virus functions. As such research progresses. Further achievements will undoubtedly lead to a new era of flavonoids in either foods or pharmaceutical supplements.” (4)

And so it has!

Interestingly, history tells us that flavonoids were once referred to as “vitamin P” back in the 1930s, but that name has lost it’s place for some reason. (5) Today, flavonoids are famous as color-providing pigments giving fruits and veggies their rich colors. This is why those foods with the deepest colors such as blueberries and kale are so healthy for you.

Antioxidant Supplements

So, the logical conclusion suggested has been that, if flavonoids found in nature can help reverse disease, then antioxidant supplements should be beneficial, right?

Unfortunately, not so.

According to a recent Harvard article reporting on antioxidant supplement research,

“The trials were mixed, but most have not found the hoped-for benefits. Most research teams reported that vitamin E and other antioxidant supplements didn’t protect against heart disease or cancer (6). One study even showed that taking beta-carotene may actually increase the chances of developing lung cancer in smokers.” (1)

Nonetheless, synthetic antioxidants are touted as promoting disease prevention and are regularly included as additives into our breakfast cereals, energy drinks and thousands upon thousands of processed foods!

Acutely put by Harvard’s School of Public Health:

“Often the claims have stretched and distorted the data: While it’s true that the package of antioxidants, minerals, fiber, and other substances found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains helps prevent a variety of chronic diseases, it is unlikely that high doses of antioxidants can accomplish the same feat.” (1)

And this point cannot be stress enough!