Beyond the ABCs

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With oxidation-causing pollutants and environmental toxins on the rise, the category of antioxidants has never been more relevant. However, the category currently faces some stiff challenges.


Oxidation in action is simultaneously fascinating and ugly. Just watch an apple turn brown after you take a bite out of it. The free radical theory of aging is based on a similar mechanism of oxidation.

With oxidation-causing pollutants and environmental toxins on the rise, the category of antioxidants has never been more relevant. However, the category currently faces some stiff challenges. Clinical studies have cast doubt on the effectiveness of some ingredients. Moreover, new ingredients continue to saturate the marketplace. Will these challenges cause the category to implode due to consumer confusion? Or will the new class of antioxidants help the industry gain more mainstream acceptance?


According to Paul Flowerman, president of P. L. Thomas & Company, Inc. (Morristown, NJ), a new antioxidant ingredient is introduced nearly every week. “The category is very confusing, even to the discerning and educated industry professional,” Flowerman says.

Consumer awareness of antioxidants has grown considerably during the past few years, adds Gary Troxel, executive vice president of InterHealth Nutraceuticals (Benicia, CA). Industry figures show that 85% of consumers are aware that antioxidants are beneficial. However, there is a significant lack of understanding about how they work. “Consumers don’t yet fully grasp the issue of free radicals and the free-radical scavenging accomplished by antioxidants,” Troxel says. “The educational process continues to be a major challenge.”

A huge hurdle in the educational process appears to be mainstream press coverage of conflicting study results. “The antioxidant category has definitely taken some hits in recent months,” says Christine Peggau, global market segment manager of dietary supplements for Cognis Nutrition & Health (La Grange, IL). “But the premise that antioxidants protect against oxidative stress will continue to be important to people, especially those concerned about healthy aging. We must not allow sensational media headlines to let consumers forget about the totality of evidence demonstrating that antioxdants are indeed effective.”

Ellen Schutt, vice president of marketing and brand strategy for RFI Ingredients (Blauvelt, NY), observes that the antioxidant category in general continues to suffer from a lack of consumer understanding beyond the basic concept that antioxidants are good for them. “We can’t expect consumers to understand why they should take green tea extract compared with grape seed extract, or natural vitamin C rather than ascorbic acid, without a lot more education,” Schutt says.

However, consumers do appear to understand how antioxidants may be helpful for certain health conditions. For example, W. H. Leong, vice president of Carotech Inc. (Edison, NJ), notes that many consumers take a multivitamin or full-spectrum antioxidant because they are aware that doing so may help balance their cholesterol.


Ingredient suppliers suggest several strategies for educating consumers. Flowerman notes that manufacturers can help consumers distinguish among different antioxidants by stressing several points: the origin of the antioxidant (food-based or synthetic), the sites of the antioxidant’s activity in the body, the strength of the antioxidant, and the level of science supporting the antioxidant. Schutt adds that comparing the antioxidant activity of a supplement to an equivalent serving of fruits and vegetables is easy for consumers to understand.

Another educational strategy involves using familiar terminology. For instance, Cyvex Nutrition (Irvine, CA) likes to refer to the “red and green teams” of antioxidants, according to Charlene Lee, marketing director at Cyvex. “Through this sensible positioning, the scientific messages are clearer, especially to the consumer,” Lee says. Cyvex’s green team includes broccoli extracts, while its red team includes grape, berry, and pomegranate extracts.

Consumers are also learning about the benefits of antioxidants from two popular diet books: The Color Code by James Joseph, PhD, and What Color Is Your Diet by David Heber, MD. Both books detail the value of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, which contain a variety of antioxidant-rich phytonutrients, says Hartley Pond, technical sales manager at FutureCeuticals (Momence, IL).


These books, along with research on fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, and broccoli, have driven interest in plant-based antioxidants, according to Pond. “Strong research on fruit-especially berries- and cruciferous vegetables has underscored the need to incorporate these foods into our diet,” Pond says, adding that antioxidant blends that combine wild blueberries, cranberries, and other brightly pigmented fruits are gaining in popularity. FutureCeuticals’ VitaBerry, for instance, contains extracts from wild blueberries, grapes, grape seed, raspberries, raspberry seed, cranberries, prunes, cherries, and strawberries.

Another multiple-berry extract, InterHealth’s OptiBerry, was shown to offer antioxidant protection for the whole body in an 8-week animal study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus, Troxel notes. “At two weeks, examination of animals fed OptiBerry and exposed to oxidative stress showed significant whole-body protection compared with control animals that did not receive the supplement,” Troxel says. “Similarly, at eight weeks, animals fed OptiBerry showed protection from oxidative stress, specifically in the lungs and liver.”

Pomegranate, which was once considered an obscure biblical fruit, has also received attention lately. Sonya Cropper, vice president of marketing for Geni Herbs Inc. (Noblesville, IN), notes that new in vitro research conducted at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania indicates that the company’s PomElla pomegranate extract displays five times greater antioxidant activity than either vitamin E or ellagic acid. “While human studies are not yet finished on PomElla, generally speaking, it seems as though the preservation of particular groups of antioxidants as they are found in plants may be the right way to go,” Cropper says.

No discussion of the darker palette of antioxidants can be complete without lycopene. According to LycoRed (New York City), epidemiological studies show that as the consumption of tomato products increases, risk of certain types of cancer decreases. Newer research conducted at Ben Gurion University (Beer Sheva, Israel) also suggests that consumption of tomato products may exert a protective effect by stimulating the body’s antioxidant response element.

Finally, one unexpected source of antioxidants is the melon. P. L. Thomas’s GliSODin, a complex of melon-derived superoxide dismutase (SOD) and gliadin, has been clinically proven to help maintain cellular health and protect against oxidative damage in several studies, notes Flowerman. In one double-blind, placebo-controlled trial published in the September 2004 issue of Free Radical Research, one group of subjects received 1000 mg of GliSODin twice daily for two weeks, while another group recieved 1000 mg of wheat gliadin alone. “The GliSODin group had significantly lower cellular DNA damage,” Flowerman says. “Furthermore, these findings coincided with reduced blood isoprostane levels, another marker of oxidative stress.”

According to Flowerman, antioxidants can be broken down into two categories: those that are obtained through dietary sources and those that are produced by the body itself. “Primary antioxidants are made by the body and thus are internally provided,” Flowerman explains. “This internal antioxidant defense system includes SOD, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase, which are the first and most powerful line of defense against oxidative stress. Antioxidants that are externally provided from dietary sources contribute to the antioxidant reserve but play a secondary role to the body’s own antioxidants.”


With so many antioxidant raw materials to choose from, and so many health problems to address, manufacturers will have plenty of opportunities to come up with products of interest to a broad range of consumers, including older Americans. New research on antioxidants should also help to push some of the more promising ingredients into the mainstream.

“We will continue to see antioxidants paired with health conditions, as well as those targeted to an aging population,” predicts Cognis’s Peggau. “It was said at a recent conference on aging that baby boomers will be living younger longer. This provides our industry with enormous opportunities to market the benefits of antioxidants to the 75 million American baby boomers.”