There’s a lot been written about antioxidants and how important they are. The simplest definition is that an antioxidant is a chemical compound that helps prevent free radical damage in the cells of the body. But what exactly does that mean?
Free radicals are chemically-reactive molecules, produced as by-products of food being broken down, and play an important role in biological processes. However, they are also produced when the body is exposed to pollutants such as tobacco smoke or radiation. Unfortunately, as they are so reactive, they can cause cellular damage and are thought to play a role in conditions such as cancer and heart disease. The free radicals that concern us are derived from molecular oxygen, hence the term ‘antioxidants’.
Antioxidants reduce the damage caused by free radicals within the body, and can help neutralise the processes that contribute to ageing and disease. There are thousands of antioxidants – more than 4,000 known flavenoids to date, which are just one class of antioxidant. However, the most well-known ones include vitamins A, C, E and beta carotene, which are capable of counteracting the damaging effects of oxidation.
Foods rich in antioxidants are typically high in other nutrients as well, often containing fibre and other vitamins and minerals that are not necessarily antioxidants. Some of the best examples of antioxidant foods are:
Blueberries, strawberries and cranberries – rich in proanthocyanidins, a class of antioxidant that can help prevent cancer and heart disease.
Broccoli – contains sulforaphane, an antioxidant that has been shown to lower the risk of many types of cancers. It also contains more vitamin C than an orange and more calcium than a glass of milk.
Garlic – containing vitamins A, B and C, selenium, iodine, potassium, iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium, the health benefits of garlic have been touted for centuries but are only now starting to be fully understood.
Green tea – contains high concentrations of catechin polyphenols, a class of disease-fighting antioxidant that work in the body with other chemicals to heighten levels of fat oxidation, thus contributing to weight loss effects. Green tea is also considered preventative against cancer, heart disease and high cholesterol.
Tomatoes – the richest source of lycopene, another disease-preventing antioxidant.
More information can be found on our High antioxidant foods page.