Natural Antioxidants: What they are and why you should care

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If you leave a penny out in the open air, it will go green and eventually rust. That is because the copper in the coin reacts with the oxygen in the air to form copper dioxide, a chemical reaction called oxidation. A similar oxidation reaction will take place if you leave the insides of fruit such as an apple exposed to the air- the oxygen atoms of the air will react with the exposed fruit causing the fruit to rot.

The oxidation process also occurs in the human body. As humans, we need oxygen to survive, oxygen is carried by red blood cells to different parts of our bodies. But during the oxidation process, unstable particles called free radicals are generated.  Molecules of free radicals are unstable because unlike other molecules which exist in pairs; they lack one electron.

These free radicals continue to circulate within the body as long as the body continues to function and age. Scientists say not all free radicals are harmful and that a certain amount is necessary to our bodies. The body suffers however when there are lots of roaming free radicals, there’s too much build up.

What causes this increase?

Some of the most common causes are smoking, pollution, drugs, too much exposure to sunlight, radiation, as well as emotional and physical stress. Our Western lifestyle eating overeating processed food, too much sugar and fats do not help the fight against oxidation.

Disturbance of the balance when too many free radicals are produced will cause oxidative stress (OS) resulting in damage to the cells of our bodies by the oxidative processjust like the rust in the copper coin and the cut apple.

Scientists say that OS, this biological rusting with too much oxygen in the body can cause a plethora of undesired human pathologies such as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cancers and heart diseases.

To fight this attack and to help relieve havoc and destruction, the body needs antioxidants.

Antioxidants are man-made or natural substances that stop or delay cell damage caused by free radicals. Acting as scavengers, antioxidants fight and neutralize free radicals, allowing the body to function normally – in other words, by intervening, they stop the oxidation process. Antioxidants also help to reduce the aging process

Although the body produces some antioxidants, with the increase in pollution and lifestyle demands today, we need hefty doses of these nutrients, more outside sources of antioxidants to block the effects of oxidation. The more anti oxidants such as vitamin E and C, we store in our bodies, the better.

Image courtesy of marin at

How do we get these outside sources?

We don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune on drugs. What you should know is that healthy foods will provide a healthy balance of antioxidants. Packing more colorful fruit, vegetables, and phyto nutrients into your diet will provide your body with a wide range of beneficial compounds.  The word phytonutrients come from phyto the Greek word for plant and nutrient refers to a compound that possesses potential benefit to one’s health.

Oncologist Dr. Mark A. Marinella says that plant products provide an array of antioxidants and phytonutrients that have been shown to decrease the risk of many chronic illnesses.

The Professor of Medicine at Wright State University School of Medicine says:

The potential health benefits of a plant-based diet cannot be overstated.  As medical literature has demonstrated, the Mediterranean-style diet possesses significant health benefits not only on a population-wide level but also for the individual.”

Dr. Marinella, author of “Metronomic Phytonutrition:  How daily, regular intake of plant-based foods may decrease cancer risk” warned that too much meat was not a good thing.

This is what he said:

  • Meat in moderation is acceptable but should be at the top of the Mediterranean pyramid and primarily consist of fish and poultry.
  • Beef and pork should be eaten sparingly, as meat contains scant antioxidants; grass-fed beef would be my choice.
  • Processed meats contain harmful nitrates, and should be avoided, as they seem to increase the risk of colorectal and other cancers.

Our goal then as we aim for a healthy lifestyle should be to reduce oxidative stress and to be aware of the benefits of natural anti oxidants. It is this careful balance that will protect our cells.

As Dr. Marinella concludes:

“The take-home message is the adoption of a consistent dietary pattern that includes daily phytonutrient-rich, foods such as seeds, nuts, spices, herbs, vegetables, fruits, and extra virgin olive oil.”


Writer Alice Alech lives in Provence, South of France  where she writes on  food, olive oïl and wine. She is co-author of the non fiction book 7 Wonders of Olive Oil. Find her at






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