Family Med-eZine TeamThursday, 03 Apr 2014, 03:29 pm

The human body produces free radicals naturally, as by-products of metabolic activity or when some environmental toxins stimulate the body to produce them. These free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms that have an uneven number of electrons, making them highly unstable and so, in order to stabilise themselves, they grab electrons from other tissue molecules. Free radicals damage body cells and intracellular components such as DNA in different ways, generating disease-causing abnormalities and may even be responsible for cancer. 

In lab research, the increased presence of anti-oxidants has been shown to prevent damage that is usually associated with cancer. Anti-oxidants do this by ‘donating’ electrons to these unstable free radicals, thereby stopping the chain-reaction started by free radicals. As a direct outcome of this relationship, scientists have been studying whether the presence of anti-oxidants helps to block the activity of these free radicals.  However, investigations are still on-going to explore whether taking anti-oxidant supplements leads to control of cancer-causing free radicals. 

ORAC Values

ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity), measures a nutrient’s ability to block its free radicals, usually under controlled lab environment, that is, in a test tube. For consumers, this measure signifies the antioxidant capacity of a nutrient and its disease-fighting ability. However, ORAC Values still do not have enough credibility to get full approval of scientists, who find no established link between increased anti-oxidant diet supplements and control on free radicals. The ORAC values, they insist, do not recognise the difference between laboratory-controlled test tube activity and the real human body where you have other foods being ingested as well.

The usage of the ORAC values in marketing, to denote higher anti-oxidant levels for certain food items, is a worrisome practice to the scientific community, since these may not be realistic in the real world. There are lot of other factors that need to be considered before declaring a diet or supplement to have clear cancer-fighting properties. In a bid to fight a terminal disease, marketeers will accept anything as a support, and the anti-oxidants concept is a good example.

Despite the above, the US-based National Cancer Institute (NCI) does recognise the significance of anti-oxidants becoming a part of the daily diet. The fact that cancer is definitely associated with damage caused by free radicals, and anti-oxidants have a big role to play in controlling them, is well-established. But the specific anti-oxidant supplements and their effects need to undergo more research to be actually useful as a daily knowledge and in food plans. There are still many unanswered questions on human requirements of anti-oxidant supplements, their effects on various body functions and the right quantities to be taken.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so it is better to not use ORAC values till these facts are established beyond doubt.

Till such time as researchers establish the facts related to the anti-cancer effects of anti-oxidants, it is probably  alright to have a broad spectrum of anti-oxidants as a part of daily diets, without being finicky about what goes in and how much. If nothing else, these anti-oxidants will help control some free radicals that may cause skin damage and organ damage, thus supporting health in the long run.

The Body's Natural Anti-oxidants

Fruits with AntioxidantsThe three main micro-nutrients in the body that function as anti-oxidants are Vitamin E, Vitamin C and Beta-carotene. Additionally, the trace metal Selenium is essential for the proper functioning of the body's anti-oxidant enzyme systems. Some source foods are mentioned below:

  • Apples, most dried fruits, tropical and colourful fruits like peaches, mangoes, and melons, also  contain plenty of anti-oxidants as well as other nutrients
  • Foods that are brightly coloured, leafy vegetables for instance, are rich in nutrients and antioxidants, by themselves. The anti-oxidants found in these can support prostrate and lung diseases –including cancer
  • Nutrients like selenium are found abundantly in Brazil nuts and sunflower seeds, and some fish like cod and tuna
  • Lycopene found in tomatoes, watermelon, guava, papaya, pink grapefruit, and apricots, help too
  • Salmon and eggs with bright orange yolks have a high content of astaxanthin, an important anti-inflammatory anti-oxidant
  • Dark leafy greens such as kale, collards, and spinach boast of lutein, which also has high anti-oxidant properties. 

With some smart methods of cooking – mild steaming or raw, the intake of anti-oxidants can be optimised. Don’t peel fruits, just washed are best. Don’t chop fine and always cook quickly on high heat, since slow cooking can damage the nutrients.

However, do note that the actual absorption of anti-oxidants in the body through diets depends on a lot of factors, many of which are natural processes and cannot be tampered with. The “bio availability” concept talks about the absorbability of these nutrients by the body, and is still inconclusive on the effect the volumes eaten have, on the disease-fighting abilities. Besides, the absorption during digestion really depends on the mechanical structure of different fruits - the molecular structure as well, for each type.

As always, before deciding on nutrition supplements or dietary patterns based on the anti-oxidant hype, always check with your doctor or dietician.