One of the biggest trends at this month’s Natural Products Expo West, showing no signs of slowing down from last year, was antioxidants. At this well-known trade show where anyone who wants to gain entrance to the shelves of high profile natural foods retailers like Whole Foods and Mother’s Market, products from all corners of the earth (the more exotic and remote the better, it seemed), were advertising their antioxidant content as a major selling point.
Ironically, just two weeks later, a study suggested that the concept of antioxidants has been overhyped to the point of consumer fatigue.
Should we care about antioxidants? And if so, why? And how can we be wise consumers when it comes to dissecting their label language?
Antioxidants are simply chemicals that have the ability to bind molecules with strong capacity to damage DNA and accelerate chronic disease and aging. There are many compounds with this capacity, including vitamins A, C, and E. More recently, other compounds not on the standard vitamin and mineral list have been isolated and identified as also being able to scavenge these molecules, also called free radicals. One of the more popular categories of antioxidants is the anthocyanins, found in blueberries and other purple foods such as blood oranges, red lettuce, and purple cabbage.
The most common way to measure antioxidant capacity is using a test called ORAC–oxygen radical absorption capacity. Because foods containing antioxidants cannot be patented, enterprising supplement companies often isolate a compound, send it off to the laboratory for analysis either alone or in a proprietary mix, obtain the ORAC score, and use that number as the basis for its hype. It’s pseudoscience, really, as an ORAC score only costs about $300 and tells you little about what happens to the substance when it is in the body, how long the product has an active shelf life, and how much of the compound can be toxic to consume.
I noticed when I started asking some of these vendors about clinical testing, they did not have answers. These tests can cost tens of thousands of dollars, do not always provide a return on the investment, and are not part of the business plan of someone hoping to make a quick dollar on the current hype.
Take for example, sea buckthorn. While there are over 300 articles in the National Library of Medicine database on this Asian berry, they tend to be clustered around therapeutic value for peptic ulcers. When the berry appeared on Dr. Oz, he focused on the supposed ability of the berry to prevent weight gain while on a high fat diet. And at Expo West, the sales pitch was oriented toward a suggestion that this berry is one of the most powerful skin antiaging agents known to man. This inconsistent marketing likely has much to do with the fact that someone spent the money for ORAC testing and got in a hurry about how to capitalize on a high score. The actual clinical/functional value of sea buckthorn, peptic ulcers, is not nearly as large a target market as weight loss or anti-aging, so the manufacturer made a logical leap hoping the consumer would as well.
It’s not that antioxidants are bad. They are important for health. However, be absolutely sure when buying one that the manufacturer can show you actual clinical studies proving that what they are telling you the product does…has actually been proven in a clinical setting.
If a company’s marketing contains all kinds of suggestions along with an asterisk stating that statements have not been evaluated by the FDA…not a good sign.
If they are willing to spend money to clinically test their product, it means they intend to be at Expo West 2050, and won’t disappear once the ORAC wave has washed ashore. That’s a good sign.
Visit the FDA website for more information about how they regulate antioxidant labeling.