Antioxidants- method behind the myth

By Lauren Hoskin

Super-foods; the modern-day wives tale passed from scientist to specialist to supermarket. Now refuted by scientists, it was thought that antioxidants contained within certain foods had the ability to protect against heart disease, cancers and ageing. However, all tales start somewhere, and so in order to dispel this myth we must first understand why it came about in the first place, and hence inspect the world on a molecular level.

All molecules are composed of various atoms joined together by charged particles called electrons. Electrons orbit the core of the atom at specific distances called shells. For atoms to be stable, whether alone or paired their outer shell must be full. And so it follows that when atoms are contentedly bonded with full outer shells neither will be seeking the company of any other atom.

During normal metabolism, enzymes break food down into molecules and atoms. Many atoms separate in an amicable divorce and end up with full outer shells, making them stable. However, molecules with weak bonds often undergo less fair separations, leaving the resulting atoms with an odd number of electrons in their outer shell. The unstable atoms, called free radicals, go straight on the rebound and instantly seek to fill their outer shell. Let loose, they bond with the nearest electron in sight, which is sometimes unfortunately already holding another couple together. Hence, by splitting up another happily bonded pair of atoms, new free radicals are created, and so the process continues. When this chain reaction takes place in cells it can cause serious damage through a process called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been previously linked to cancer, heart disease and various other illnesses.

There is much evidence to prove a correlation between diets high in fruit and vegetables and a lower risk of heart disease and cancer. However, the exact reason behind this correlation has not yet been found, and so it was hypothesised that it is the antioxidants found in plants that are protective against oxidative stress. It is thought that antioxidants are able to offer spare electrons to unstable free radicals and hence put a stop to the chain reaction of electron snatching, creating a stable environment within the body again. However, this theory has since been invalidated through randomized controlled trials which failed to show any consistent evidence to support this hypothesis. The intake of antioxidant supplements were shown to have no correlation with lower disease rates and in some cases had negative effects. Nevertheless, regardless of the reason, a correlation between higher plant intake and lower disease rate still stands, so eat your greens!