Antioxidants not an aging cure-all

Andrew Holtzen

According to popular myth, in 1513 the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León left Puerto Rico with a fleet of ships and headed north to Florida in search of a land said to possess magic waters that could restore one’s vitality.

The water was said to provide a person with the ability to attain immortality, ridding anyone lucky enough to find it of the universal and inevitable presence of death.

Nearly 500 years after Ponce de León’s apocryphal journey, much of the world is still as eager as ever to overcome, or at least delay, the inevitable. This leads many to turn to science for a true fountain of youth.

Currently, one of the most popular purported sources of extended life comes in the form of antioxidants.

These are a group of molecules characterized by their ability to inhibit destructive oxidation reactions in cells caused by other molecules called free radicals.

Antioxidants work by “neutralizing” the highly reactive unpaired electrons found in free radicals rendering them harmless to your cells.

That’s a lot more information than can be found on the labels of many supplements and juices whose claims of antioxidants’ panacea run the gamut from effective dietary aid to immune system booster and all the way to a preventer of cancer.

But it’s certainly the anti-aging claims that have placed the most revered (and expensive) natural antioxidants sources such as açaí berries, pomegranate and wolfberries, at the top of must-consume-relentlessly-in-order-to-be-healthy lists.

However, the fact that what has essentially become a buzzword in the health food industry has proven disappointing in research and a number of clinical trials.

In 2008, a comprehensive review by the USDA of 67 studies involving supplemental antioxidants found that there was no change in the rate of mortality among those who took antioxidant supplements.

The review went further and concluded that excessive consumption of the fat-soluble antioxidants vitamin A, vitamin E, and beta-carotene may actually lead to higher rates of death when compared with a placebo. A similar review of supplements conducted by Copenhagen University Hospital found similar results.

Antioxidants, however, qualify a broad range of nutrients other than the three vitamins mentioned and are found without supplements in fruits and vegetables.

So, what about the antioxidants in these natural sources?

Well, as any third grader with a food pyramid could tell you, eating fruits and vegetables is definitely a good idea.

Countless and varied studies have shown that people who consume enough of these foods can expect health benefits that could ultimately improve their chances of living longer.

This is due largely to their complex nutritional makeup that includes, but is definitely not limited to, antioxidants.

In addition to compounds with antioxidant properties, there are numerous other vitamins and minerals in fruits and vegetables whose benefits are established and far more promising, yet makers of antioxidant super juices — like MonaVie and XanGo — continue to tout the anti-aging benefits of their costly products.

The simple fact is that aging and ultimately death are determined by biological factors — many beyond our control.

But fear of death overrides the ability to surrender to something we can’t control. And so the search for an elixir of life will continue well after the antioxidant craze has ended.

Andrew Holtzen is a writer for The University Daily Kansan at the University of Kansas.