It seems like every week a new health fad takes the world by storm. From the Adkins Diet to the furor over trans-fats, the media bombards people with new health scares and promises all the time. The problem is that smart, scientifically backed health advice often gets lost in the shuffle. A great example is antioxidants, a group of chemical compounds that good science shows are helpful to human health.
Fighting Free Radicals
The power of antioxidants lies in their ability to combat damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are atoms or molecules that are unbalanced because they are missing an electron in one of their outer orbitals. The chemistry behind free radicals is complex, but these molecules essential hunt around for a spare electron to rebalance themselves. This process is called oxidization—it’s like rust occurring on a molecular level.
The problem is that, inside the body, free radicals obtain their electrons by stealing them from cells in the body. This causes minute changes to cellular structures and DNA. Although no single chemical reaction is likely to cause noticeable damage, over a human lifespan millions upon millions of reactions accumulate and cause all kind of health problems.
How Antioxidants Work
Antioxidants are the antidotes to free radicals. As their name suggests, these molecules prevent oxidization on a molecular level, protecting cells and DNA from damage caused by free radicals. They work by offering to give up an electron to the hungry free radicals moving throughout the body. These compounds are inherently stable, so losing a spare electron doesn’t trigger a chain reaction resulting in cellular damage.
Health Benefits of Antioxidants
The chemistry can sound a little complicated, but the health benefits of consuming antioxidants are huge and apparent.
First, oxidization caused by free radicals may be one of the primary causes of aging. Skin wrinkles, loss of bone density, decreases in organ efficiency and a host of other age-related problems are all linked to the damage caused by free radicals. Antioxidants, it appears, mitigate that damage and prolong life.
Second, free radicals may cause cancer due to their ability to damage DNA. High doses of antioxidants prevent DNA damage by knocking out free radicals before they can get into cells, thereby reducing cancer risks.
Third, free radicals have been linked to heart disease, the number one killer in the United States. Over time, free radicals oxidize arterial walls and contribute to hardness and arterial blockages. Antioxidants can fight back against this process.
Measuring Antioxidant Power
All antioxidants do some work to protect health and improve lifespan, but they aren’t all equally good at the job. Some compounds classified as antioxidants have very minimal effects on free radicals inside the body, while other compounds are extraordinary effective.
Distinctions between antioxidants are confusing for health-conscious consumers because most foods and supplements proudly declare their antioxidant content without explaining which antioxidants they’re talking about or how effective they are. Some consumers are spending lots of cash chasing antioxidants that will have very little effect on their overall health.
Fortunately, there’s a good solution for healthy consumers: the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) measure. ORAC is a standardized measure of the effectiveness and quantity of the antioxidants contained within a food or supplement. The scale works by counting up all of the different antioxidants in a food and weighting them according to their effectiveness. Then, researchers provide a score measuring the net value of all the antioxidants in the food.
The calculation process is a bit tricky, but the outcome value allows consumers to literally compare apples and oranges: oranges have an ORAC value of about 750, while apples are in the mid-200s.
Armed with accurate information about antioxidant content, consumers can make smarter choices about the foods they eat and the supplements they take. Thanks to ORAC values, it’s possible to set a goal for amount of antioxidants consumed in a given day and keep track of progress. That means health-conscious people can reliably protect themselves from illnesses like cancer and heart disease as well as age-related problems.