September, 2010 / Author:

The dirty little secret  behind claims of antioxidant benefits

Chocolate, pomegranate, red wine, goji and açaí berries all have something in common; namely that they’ve all been marketed, often deceptively so, as capable of providing extraordinary health benefits. Upon closer investigation, many of the claims made for these foods don’t hold much water, and hold up even less to actual scientific scrutiny.

Illustration by DILLAN BEKKERING
The marketed benefits of eating açaí berries and related products, for example, centre on the purportedly high levels of antioxidants they contain. Antioxidants are molecules that prevent oxidation in other molecules. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that can damage molecules. So antioxidants sound pretty vital. What none of the companies selling them will point out is that the antioxidants contained in cocoa, pomegranates, açaí, goji and even blueberries are not readily absorbed into the body. 

Scientists categorize antioxidants into several groups, one of which is flavanoids, which are found in many fruits and vegetables. According to a study done by Balz Frei, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Oregon State University:¬† “Flavonoids are poorly absorbed into blood and rapidly eliminated from the body.” Meaning that anything you have ever been told about antioxidants is highly doubtful at best, and may be an outright scam. 

This begs the question, how is anyone supposed to know what is healthy and what isn’t? Despite the glut of misleading information, choosing healthy foods is still as simple as eating your greens, says Joyce Slater, a professor of human nutritional sciences at the University of Manitoba. 

Slater points out that many fruits and vegetables are now sold in ready-to-eat formats at the supermarket. She also notes that poor nutrition is not something exclusive to any economic class, as many professionals and businesspeople often find themselves making poor food choices due to time constraints.¬† 

She warns against people drinking their calories: “A Starbucks grande caramel hot chocolate contains 620 calories.” To put that into perspective, a Big Mac has 540.¬†¬† Slater also points out that the number of calories in soft drinks and fruit juices are about the same. 

Carla Taylor, also a professor with the faculty of human nutritional sciences, says it’s important to limit salt intake, which is present in many processed foods. Both scientists stress the advantage of cooking from scratch is that you will avoid unnecessary additives. 

Taylor doesn’t dismiss all forms of food processing, however. Studies have shown that cooking tomatoes can increase the body’s ability to absorb lycophene, a bioactive compound that is shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers. In fact, much current research in the field of human nutrition is now focusing on similar bioactive compounds and their actual health benefits. 

Illustration by DYLAN BEKKERING
In the meantime, the government of Canada’s food guide as well as Harvard University’s own guide (which makes some noteworthy claims regarding the corporate influence behind the USDA’s own food pyramid) are both useful as guides to healthy eating. Ultimately Mr. T of the A-Team may have said it most eloquently: Eat yo Greens! 



–Miles McEnery is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer. To comment on this or any other article in Outwords, write to 

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