Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Antioxidants

Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Antioxidants

Written by: Fannie Dancose, August 2020

You might have seen or heard the word antioxidant in the media or in ads. Sometimes it sounds like some miracle ingredients or superfood that you must eat to be healthy. In reality, antioxidants are not essential to our health, meaning that our body does not need them like it does water or micro and macronutrients, but they are pretty neat and have a lot of benefits for our health. So here is everything you've ever wanted to know about antioxidants.

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are substances that prevent free radicals from damaging our cells. Free radicals are highly unstable molecules that are naturally created in our body and found in our environment in smoke, air pollution, and sunlight. They cause oxidative stress and damage in our body. Antioxidants will decrease oxidative stress by neutralizing and stabilizing free radicals (3).

What are phytochemicals?

Phytochemicals are compounds that are only found in plants and that contain antioxidant power. Phytochemicals add colour, taste, and smell to plant food we eat. Think about the deep reddish pink of beets or the smell of cooked cabbages. It’s all due to phytochemicals.

How many phytochemicals are there and where can we find them?

Scientists say there are more than 5,000 phytochemicals! Each phytochemicals can be classified in one family or class and subdivided in subclasses. 

As we said, phytochemicals come from plants. So you can find them in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes especially in the skin or peel. In the process of drying or freezing food, the phytochemical quantity of quality might change, however it has been found that there are still sufficient amounts of phytochemicals in those foods for you to enjoy their benefits! (1)

Families of Phytochemicals

Common sources

Carotenoids (Lycopene, Beta-carotene, Lutein and Zeaxanthin)

Red, orange, yellow, and green plants

Flavonoids (Anthocyanins, Flavonols, Flavones, Isoflavone, Quercetin) 

Berries, apples, citrus, onions, soybeans, and coffee

Sulfur compounds (Sulfides and thiols)

Onions, garlic, leeks, olives, and scallions

Isothiocyanates (Sulforaphane)

Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale

Terpenoids (Terpenes) 

Cherries and citrus fruits

What are the superpowers of phytochemicals?

Phytochemicals act at various levels in the body. In general, they may help with (2):

  • Inhibition of cancer and tumour growth
  • Immunity support
  • Inflammation reduction
  • Decrease in blood pressure 
  • Decrease in "bad" LDL cholesterol
  • Improvement in heart and eye health

Are foods or supplements with added antioxidants helpful or harmful?

Antioxidants supplements are not very helpful and might be harmful. Several studies tried to demonstrate the effects of taking different antioxidant supplements on health and the great majority of them have not been conclusive. Sometimes, supplements can be harmful in the sense that the dose is way too high which can cause some harm and even promote inflammation. Supplements can also be contaminated with other substances or can interact with medications. Always inform yourself through reliable sources or talk to your health care provider before trying out antioxidant supplements.

How do I include phytochemicals in my diet?

We can all say that phytochemicals are pretty awesome. They give colour, smell, and taste to plants but they also help us be healthier. The key to enjoy all of the benefits of phytochemicals is to eat the rainbow. No need for supplements or enriched food. Just good old vegetables and fruits will do the trick. The more colour there is in your plate, the better! 

You can add some Bean Bark - a healthy chocolate snack in your diet to have extra phytochemicals. 

Apples have a variety of phytochemicals like quercetin (flavonols). Apples are associated with decreased risk of diseases like asthma, cancer, and heart problems (4). Cranberries are rich in A-type proanthocyanidins which might have a favourable effect on heart health (5). Peaches have different carotenoids, anthocyanins, and phenolic acids and may help by supporting immunity and reducing inflammation (6). You can try all three types as a healthy snack on the Remix Snacks website. 

  1. Chang, S. K., Alasalvar, C., & Shahidi, F. (2016). Review of dried fruits: phytochemicals, antioxidant efficacies, and health benefits. Journal of Functional Foods, 21, 113–132. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jff.2015.11.034
  2. Harvard Medical School. (2019). Fill up on phytochemicals. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/fill-up-on-phytochemicals
  3. National Institutes of Health: lNational Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2013). Antioxidants: In Depth. Retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants-in-depth
  4. Boyer, J., & Liu, R. H. (2004). Apple phytochemicals and their health benefits. Nutrition journal, 3, 5. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-3-5
  5. Blumberg, J. B., Camesano, T. A., Cassidy, A., Kris-Etherton, P., Howell, A., Manach, C., Ostertag, L. M., Sies, H., Skulas-Ray, A., & Vita, J. A. (2013). Cranberries and their bioactive constituents in human health. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 4(6), 618–632. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.113.004473
  6. Byrne, D. H., Noratto, G., Cisneros-Zevallos, L., Porter, W., & Vizzotto, M. (2009). Health benefits of peach, nectarine and plums. Acta Horticulturae, 841(841), 267–274. https://doi.org/10.17660/ActaHortic.2009.841.32
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