Plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains contain many components that are beneficial to human health. Research supports that some of these foods, as part of an overall healthful diet, have the potential to delay the onset of many age-related diseases. These observations have led to continuing research aimed at identifying specific bioactive components in foods, such as antioxidants, which may be responsible for improving and maintaining health.
Antioxidants are present in foods as vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, and polyphenols, among others. Many antioxidants are often identified in food by their distinctive colors—the deep red of cherries and of tomatoes; the orange of carrots; the yellow of corn, mangos, and saffron; and the blue-purple of blueberries, blackberries, and grapes. The most well-known components of food with antioxidant activities are vitamins A, C, and E; β-carotene; the mineral selenium; and more recently, the compound lycopene.
The research continues to grow regarding the knowledge of antioxidants as healthful components of food. Oxidation, or the loss of an electron, can sometimes produce reactive substances known as free radicals that can cause oxidative stress or damage to the cells. Antioxidants, by their very nature, are capable of stabilizing free radicals before they can react and cause harm, in much the same way that a buffer stabilizes an acid to maintain a normal pH. Because oxidation is a naturally occurring process within the body, a balance with antioxidants must exist to maintain health.
While the body has its defenses against oxidative stress, these defenses are thought to become less effective with aging as oxidative stress becomes greater.Research suggests there is involvement of the resulting free radicals in a number of degenerative diseases associated with aging, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, immune dysfunction, cataracts, and macular degeneration.Certain conditions, such as chronic diseases and aging, can tip the balance in favor of free radical formation, which can contribute to ill effects on health.
Consumption of antioxidants is thought to provide protection against oxidative damage and contribute positive health benefits. For example, the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin engage in antioxidant activities that have been shown to increase macular pigment density in the eye. Whether this will prevent or reverse the progression of macular degeneration remains to be determined.An increasing body of evidence suggests beneficial effects of the antioxidants present in grapes, cocoa, blueberries, and teas on cardiovascular health, Alzheimer’s disease, and even reduction of the risk of some cancers.
Until recently, it appeared that antioxidants were almost a panacea for continued good health. It is only as more research has probed the mechanisms of antioxidant action that a far more complex story continues to be unraveled. Although recent research has attempted to establish a causal link between indicators of oxidative stress and chronic disease, none has yet been validated. A new area of research, led by the study of the human genome, suggests that the interplay of human genetics and diet may play a role in the development of chronic diseases. This science, while still in its infancy, seeks to provide an understanding of how common dietary nutrients such as antioxidants can affect health through gene-nutrient interactions.
There still remains a lack of direct experimental evidence from randomized trials that antioxidants are beneficial to health, which has led to different recommendations for different populations. For example, the use of supplemental β-carotene has been identified as a contributing factor to increased risk of lung cancer in smokers. However, because the risk has not been indicated in non-smokers, these studies suggest that a precaution regarding the use of supplemental β-carotene is not warranted for non-smokers. If supplementation is desired, the use of a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement containing antioxidants has been recommended for the general public as the best advice at this time.
A recent review of current literature suggests that fruits and vegetables in combination have synergistic effects on antioxidant activities leading to greater reduction in risk of chronic disease, specifically for cancer and heart disease.For some time, health organizations have recognized the beneficial roles fruits and vegetables play in the reduced risk of disease and developed communication programs to encourage consumers to eat more antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. The American Heart Association recommends healthy adults “Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Choose 5 or more servings per day.”The American Cancer Society recommends to “Eat 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day.”The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research 1997 Report Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective states, “Evidence of dietary protection against cancer is strongest and most consistent for diets high in vegetables and fruits.”The potential for antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables to help improve the health of Americans led the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to start the, “5-A-Day for Better Health” campaign to promote consumption of these foods.
Given the high degree of scientific consensus about consumption of a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables—particularly those which contain dietary fiber and vitamins A and C; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a health claim for fruits and vegetables in relation to cancer. Food packages that meet FDA criteria may now carry the claim “Diets low in fat and high in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of some cancers.”In addition the FDA, in cooperation with NCI, released a dietary guidance message for consumers, “Diets rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of some types of cancer and other chronic diseases.”Most recently the Dietary Guidelines for Americans stated, “Increased intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products are likely to have important health benefits for most Americans.”
Antioxidant research continues to grow and emerge as new beneficial components of food are discovered. Reinforced by current research, the message remains that antioxidants obtained from food sources, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains, are potentially active in disease risk reduction and can be beneficial to human health.
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