Antioxidants are substances that mop up free radicals generated in the body during metabolic processes. Such an action is beneficial because free radicals are by unstable by nature, and tend to combine with available ions in the tissues, triggering off a chain of undesirable reactions. Free radicals have a role in causing many disease states, and consequently antioxidants have been advocated for the prevention and control of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, cataract and other conditions.
Several well known nutrients have antioxidant actions, including ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin E) and beta-carotene. The term “antioxidant” is also used generally to include phytochemicals, herbals, minerals and other products such as lycopene, pycnogenol, green tea, selenium and others, which have these properties. Clearly, antioxidant formulations are becoming a rage and the market for them is huge. However, while it has been suggested that a high intake of antioxidants improves the prognosis of various conditions, controlled clinical trials have not always convincingly demonstrated a benefit from specific supplementation with these agents. This could be because in vivo, antioxidants act together with each other and not singly. It is possible that the future could lie in developing multiple-ingredient formulae with a balanced mix of antioxidants working in harmony, much like players in an orchestra.
The consumer will drive the market for antioxidants. Consumers will find them in pharmaceuticals, as food additives and in cosmetics. In India, antioxidant medications are commonly obtained on a doctor’s prescription. This implies that a patient could be introduced to antioxidants only after presenting with some complaint before a doctor, rather than using them to protect against the disease to start with. For doctors too, there is the question -- who should get antioxidants and when should they be started prophylactically? Obviously, further research is needed to substantiate the efficacy and safety of antioxidants and to formulate guidelines for their use. Meanwhile, we could hardly lose from a good dietary intake of antioxidants. Moreover, some studies have suggested a beneficial effect of specific antioxidants from foods but not from supplementation.
But what are the sources of antioxidants in the diet? To start with, there are the foods which are known to be rich in the respective antioxidant compounds, such as carrots for beta-carotene and fresh vegetables for ascorbic acid. Then there is tea, a widely consumed beverage throughout the world. Tea without milk could be a good source of antioxidants and the addition of lemon to tea may increase its antioxidant potential. Alcoholic beverages could have counteracting effects on plasma antioxidants.
Flavonoids, a group of phenolic compounds found in fruits and vegetables, are known to have antioxidant properties. They prevent low density lipoprotein oxidation and may play a role in the prevention of coronary heart disease. Medicinal plants including ginseng and the Indian ashwagandha are also known to have antioxidant properties.
Many spices and vegetables forming part of the Indian diet possess antioxidant activity. In one study, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, garlic, mint and onion showed antioxidant activity, in that order. Spice mixes such as ginger, onion and garlic showed synergistic antioxidant activity which was retained even after boiling for 30 minutes. Thus, in addition to imparting flavor to food, spices could provide benefits to health.
But with so many foods and pharmaceuticals with antioxidant properties, consumers may already be having so many choices that the word “antioxidant” could lose its meaning. The question is, “If everything is an antioxidant, what do I choose?”
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This article appreared in Pharma Business, September 15, 2000.
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