Top Stories of 2012: A Misunderstood Health Claim: Antioxidants

December 27, 2012

This year we saw many foods touting benefits of antioxidants. Here's one of The Lempert Report's top stories of 2012 on this claim.

These days it seems like just about every food is boasting about it’s “antioxidant power” – but for many shoppers it is confusing and rightfully so. There are actually thousands of antioxidants, each with unique properties and benefits and therefore not interchangeable – one particular antioxidant will not offer the same protection as another, which is why we need to consume a variety of them.

Antioxidants are simply substances that may protect cells from the damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals, which can damage our cells and DNA; and may lead to many different diseases.  As reported by the Harvard School of Public Health, studies have not conclusively proven the relationship between antioxidants and disease fighting properties and prevention.

Antioxidants are abundant in fruits and vegetables, as well as in other foods including nuts, grains, and some meats, poultry, and fish; and are now being added to breakfast cereals, sports bars, energy drinks, and other foods. They are being promoted to prevent heart disease, cancer, cataracts, memory loss, to name just a few benefits – but most studies suggest that the foods that contain these naturally are more beneficial than when added as an ingredient. It is also important to note that steaming vegetables (instead of boiling them) retains much more of the antioxidants.

The standard for measuring the antioxidant capacity of different foods is called Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity – or ORAC Value, which was developed by the National Institutes of Health. The higher the number, the higher the antioxidant capacity, but this test is often challenged as it is conducted in test tubes experiments. Most of us have heard that blueberries are rich in antioxidants; this fruit has an ORAC value of 4,669 - but did you know that dried parsley has a value of 73,670? Or ground cloves at 290,283?

At last month’s Institute of Food Technologists 2012 Wellness Conference, Dr. Carl Keen, professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California, Davis declared that “The word antioxidant should probably be banished from food labels – it’s too generic, it’s so non-specific.”

And I would have to agree. Each week, as I have for over 20 years, I review new foods and beverages coming into the marketplace, and can tell you that the more specific the taste or health claim, the better rate for success and consumer understanding and empowerment. If we truly want to change healthy eating behaviors information is key - we should be focused on naming the individual antioxidants themselves, and put those on the label rather than just an ORAC value or saying “rich in antioxidants.”

Retailers and brands both have a responsibility to make this a reality.