On January 25, Newsweek published an article entitled “Antioxidants Fall From Grace: The popular dietary components may not do any good, and may actually harm”. The article treads the same old path of ‘antioxidant supplements do not work, and one big meta-analysis indicated they may increase your risk of mortality’.
One word: Yawn.
The world of antioxidants is moving onwards, and repeating the same old line is not benefiting anyone: Not consumers, nor industry. For those at the cutting edge of antioxidant research, now is the time to show where the science is going.
Antioxidants = that meta-analysis
In the Newsweek article (available here), Sharon Begley states: “The first hints that the [antioxidant] bandwagon was crashing came from the hundreds of studies that have tried to assess the health effects of antioxidant supplements. The results have not been pretty.”
Ms Begley then goes on with reciting the results of the meta-analysis with 67 studies that concluded that vitamins A and E, and beta-carotene may increase mortality risk by up to 16 percent. The meta-analysis first appeared in JAMA (2007, Vol. 297, pp. 842-857), and then enjoyed an encore as a Cochrane Systematic Review.
“It’s not clear why antioxidants in supplement form might be so dangerous,” adds Begley.
No! It is not clear that antioxidant supplements are in any way ‘dangerous’: What is clear, however, is that there is no mention of the 748 trials that were excluded from the meta-analysis that the Newsweek article hinges on, including 405 trials that showed no mortality in the study groups. After all, you can't measure antioxidants in relation to death if you have no deaths to compare it to.
There is also no mention of the recent revisit of this data by scientists led by Prof Hans Biesalski from the University of Hohenheim, which found that 36 percent of the trials showed a positive outcome or that the antioxidant supplements were beneficial, 60 percent had a null outcome, while only four percent found negative outcome (Nutrients, 2010, 2(9), 929-949).
Balance is the key
Extra antioxidants from the diet or supplements help redress the scales often tipped in favor of the pro-oxidants by factors such as aging, exposure to pollution, smoking, and excessive exercise: Pro-oxidants do perform important functions, including being involved in cell signaling and immune responses, but it’s about balance between these species and antioxidants.
(For an update on thinking of antioxidants and reactive oxygen species, I’d point you in the direction of a new opinion paper by Prof. Barry Halliwell from the National University of Singapore – a leading voice in antioxidant research.
Writing in Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, Prof Halliwell notes: “The biology of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and antioxidants is not an esoteric field of study: these species are involved in all aspects of aerobic life. One cannot live without them, nor would one wish to, but ultimately they no doubt contribute to individual mortality. Learning how to stop the latter while preserving the useful functions of ‘reactive species’ should be a major research priority.”)
Ms Begley does discuss the pro-oxidant issue, but to cite these reasons, one (controversial) meta-analysis, and four animal studies is not doing the subject of antioxidants any justice whatsoever.
Such comments have been echoed by academia and industry: Tufts University’s Prof Jeff Blumberg told NutraIngredients-USA.com: "Regrettably, this piece does not provide a balanced viewpoint of the state-of-the-science of dietary antioxidants and attempts to frighten readers with brief descriptions of a few in vitro experiments, studies in mice and rats, and reliance on controversial meta-analyses."
And this echoed comments from Douglas MacKay, N.D, Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), who added: “The article provided an incomplete picture of the existing scientific evidence supporting the benefits of antioxidants, instead relying exclusively on findings from only negative or null studies, and meta-analyses that many scientists have already criticized.”
The next phase
In addition to being incomplete, the article also contains nothing that is ‘news’. Instead, the real news on antioxidants is far more interesting: Academics such as Prof Blumberg have called for a move beyond the term ‘antioxidant’.
“Stopping use of the term ‘antioxidant’ provides a terrific opportunity to differentiate yourself and promote the multifunctional benefits of these compounds we now call antioxidants,” said Prof Blumberg in an interview with NutraIngredients in 2010. “Can we tell that story without using the term ’antioxidant’?”
From an industry perspective, the term ‘antioxidant’ is an established member of the marketer’s little black book of favorite terms, and this is not surprising when we consider the global supplements market in 2009 for antioxidant vitamin C was $3.4bn (€2.49bn), coenzyme Q10 was $897m (€657m), and vitamin E was $1.39bn (€1.02bn), according to Euromonitor.
But relying on the term to guarantee future sales is short-sighted. Indeed, various sections of the industry acknowledge the need to move beyond our current thinking. Last year, Dr Michele Kellerhals, research and innovation, functional ingredients director at Coca-Cola Europe told the Fresenius Functional Food conference last year Coca-Cola said he expects antioxidants to be replaced with polyphenols.
Such pro-active thinking is what we need in terms of antioxidants. It is clear that consuming these nutrients is beneficial but thinking of them only as antioxidants is getting old.
Now that would wake us up and get us thinking.
Stephen Daniells is the senior editor for NutraIngredients-USA.com and FoodNavigator-USA.com. He has a PhD in chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France. He has been writing about nutrition and food science for over five years, and has commented on the subject of antioxidants previously: “Time for Antioxidants v2.0” and “The quest for a radical new world for antioxidants”.