Worth the Hype? Antioxidant Supplements


As the new year begins, we are all bombarded with information about improving our health and getting fit as part of our new years resolutions. With the huge platform of social media being used to share useful as well as false information, it can be difficult to distinguish what is actually going to improve your health.

When investigating whether the claims we have seen about a food are true, we often look to see an endorsement from a medical or nutritional professional and to see for ourselves whether it makes a difference to the way we look or feel. However, sometimes looking at scientific trials can give a better idea of the facts. This can be done with antioxidant supplements, which are a top seller in health food shops, especially around the new year.

Antioxidants are compounds which ‘mop up’ free radicals in your body by reacting with them, the idea that antioxidants can help prevent illness is therefore  based upon the theory that free-radicals damage DNA which leads to cancer and ageing. However, are free radicals in the body always a bad thing? Free radicals are vital in the body to kill off bacteria in phagocytic immune cells, and therefore aren’t necessarily something to hugely worry about.

Two large trials of antioxidants were conducted after initial antioxidant trails showed positive results. These and others since have illustrated the ineffectiveness of antioxidant supplements. One such trial was conducted in Finland where 30,000 participants at hight risk of lung cancer were recruited and randomised to receive β-carotene (an antioxidant) vitamin E, or both, or neither. In this trial both the groups receiving the vitamin supplement and the β-carotene had more deaths overall than the placebo group from lung cancer and heart disease.

Another trial, (the ‘Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial’), conducted over a decade ago, studied two groups of people at high risk of lung cancer, half were given β-carotene and vitamin A, whilst the other half was given a placebo. 18,000 participants were due to be recruited throughout the coarse of the trial and their progress studied every 6 years. However, the trial was terminated early due to the people taking the antioxidant tablets becoming 46% more likely to die from lung cancer than those taking the placebo.

The most up-to-date Cochrane reviews of the literature collect the data on antioxidant trials, assess the quality of the data and trials and then put them onto a spreadsheet to show the most accurate possible conclusion. This has shown that antioxidant supplements are either ineffective or actually harmful.

So, when people are raving about ‘super-foods’ and health shops are pushing their supplement pills, don’t forget to look at what the studies actually show! It’s best to have a varied diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, maintain a healthy weight and not to drink too much alcohol.



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