Despite all the buzz around antioxidants, most of us don’t really know what they are, where they come from, or how they work. This is a problem because when we’re uninformed, we’re susceptible to scam products and, more seriously, we may neglect foods rich in antioxidants.
It starts with the sun.
Plants convert sunlight into simple sugars, then more complex carbohydrates, fats, and proteins through photosynthesis. Transforming sunlight into plant material is energy-intensive; it essentially involves the exchange of electrons from one molecule to another. During this exchange some electrons can miss their targets, turning their intended molecules into “free radicals.” These errant electrons can wreak havoc in a cell, as can the free radicals, which try to steal electrons from nearby molecules. Left unchecked, these electrons and free radicals could effect enough molecules to ultimately kill the plant.
Antioxidants are found in plants.
Here’s where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants act as a protective shield to soak up loose electrons. The chemical process that soaks up the electrons usually creates visible colors. There are hundreds of different antioxidants, yielding many different colors. Antioxidants give fruits and vegetables their pleasing colors: squash gets its yellow from the antioxidant beta-carotine, while and tomato gets its red from lycopene.
Humans don’t produce antioxidants. This is why we should eat fruits and vegetables.
Humans accumulate free radicals through exposure to sunlight and pollution. In our bodies, free radicals harden tissues, accelerate aging, and may promote cancer. We don’t produce antioxidants on our own so we get them by eating colorful fruits and vegetables. Once in our bodies, antioxidants continue their function of diffusing free radicals, thus helping us look and feel young for longer.
No, you can’t get antioxidants from a pill.
Despite the vitamin and supplement industry’s marketing efforts, most research confirms that antioxidants are best processed by eating whole, plant-based foods. The more fruits and vegetables you eat, the better you will do.