Experts urge less focus on antioxidants, more on variety

Experts urge less focus on antioxidants, more on variety

Experts urge less focus on antioxidants, more on variety

Tired of trying to keep track of all the so-called super foods you're supposed to eat?

You know, oregano that packs 42 times more antioxidants than apples, cooked tomatoes that may prevent prostate cancer, and chocolate and wine that may or may not be health foods?

Then here's the good news -- you can stop trying. Leading researchers say all those breathless headlines, food packaging claims and seemingly contradictory studies about what antioxidants can and can't do have fostered a faulty silver bullet mind-set that can hinder health more than help.

Instead, experts advise focusing on balance, moderation and variety, and leaving the phytochemicals, flavanols and phenolic acids to scientists.

Foods labeled as antioxidant-rich -- everything from bottled tea to bags of frozen berries -- have become a $526 million industry that continues to grow. Even foods that otherwise have seen sales slump are getting a boost from antioxidant claims. Sales of blueberry preserves, for example, are up, though overall jam sales are down.

"It's clear that regardless of whether or not people understand what 'rich in antioxidants' means, it is certainly a logo or a stamp that says 'Buy me! I'm going to help you live forever'.

Maybe. Maybe not. Experts aren't suggesting antioxidants aren't important or that people shouldn't eat foods that contain them. Instead, they're saying not enough is known about how they work to justify focusing one's diet on any particular antioxidant or food.

It's all about quashing free radicals, harmful chemicals produced by the body and found in the environment that damage cells. That damage has been linked to a host of chronic conditions, from heart problems to cancer, even aging.

Diets rich in antioxidants -- which are in countless foods -- seem to minimize this damage. What's not clear is whether that benefit is due to the antioxidants themselves or to the overall diet and the way the antioxidants and other nutrients in it interact.

The evidence increasingly suggests the latter, says Howard Sesso, a professor of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. That means eating patterns make a difference, but probably not eating particular foods or taking supplements.

Also unknown is whether quantity counts. Manufacturers brag about the amount of antioxidants in their products, but studies have yet to establish that more is better, or whether the body can even absorb the amounts contained in most foods.

There's probably not much harm in eating a lot of blueberries, but that can't be said of all antioxidant-rich foods. The calories in fruit juice and alcohol, for example, add up quickly and obesity negates the benefits of even the healthiest foods.

In other words - eat a balanced diet and don't get hung up on the particulars.

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