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Antioxidants: What Are They? by Shaanvhi Jayaram

What are Antioxidants? 

Antioxidants refer to certain nutrients, including vitamins C, E, and carotenoids, that protect our cells from the detrimental impact of free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules produced in the body when our cells process oxygen, and as they regain stability they can lead to damage in  our cells and DNA. This type of damage can pose significant problems for our bodily tissues and organs, and may increase the risk of diseases such as heart disease, Alzheimer's, and cancer. 


Why are They Important? 

Research has shown that antioxidants can neutralize free radicals by preventing or repairing the damage that they cause. Because of how important they are to our body, it is essential to understand how we can implement the consumption of these crucial elements into our daily diets. 


Optimal Sources of Antioxidants 

The best sources of antioxidants are found in plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and cocoa. These natural sources boast an array of antioxidants such as carotenoids, flavonoids, isothiocyanates, and phenolic acids. When it comes to optimizing the intake of antioxidants, it's important to consider the impact of cooking and processing on the levels of antioxidants in our foods. 


While certain cooking methods can lead to a reduction in antioxidant levels, others can increase their bioavailability. For instance, cooking tomatoes enhances the availability of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant. Similarly, pairing together certain antioxidants with other nutrients, such as cooking orange and yellow vegetables(which contain beta carotene and vitamin E)with a bit of fat, can make these antioxidants more available to the body. On the other hand, some foods are best consumed raw to preserve their antioxidant content. For example, raw, unprocessed berries have greater antioxidant levels compared to jam made with those berries.


Incorporating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables is a beneficial strategy for ensuring a diverse intake of antioxidants. Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and cranberries, whether fresh or frozen, are considered the top fruit sources of antioxidants. Additionally, unsalted nuts and seeds, particularly walnuts and pecans, and whole grains contribute significantly to the antioxidant content of our diet. 


Should I Take Antioxidant Supplements? 

It is noteworthy that obtaining antioxidants from fruits and vegetables, as opposed to relying on antioxidant supplements, is the recommended approach. The abundant presence of various antioxidants in these natural food sources, along with phytochemicals in plants, are believed to have greater antioxidant effects than supplements. For example, a study found that vitamin E when taken as a supplement did not offer the same health benefits as consuming fruits and vegetables that contained vitamin E. Research also shows that some vitamin supplements may even pose potential risks when consumed in excessive amounts. While some vitamin supplements have shown promise in specific contexts, the overall consensus leans toward whole foods as the ideal source of antioxidants. The embracing of a well-balanced diet, primarily consisting of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, stands as the best and most effective approach to antioxidant intake. 


References: 

1. “Add Antioxidants to Your Diet.” Mayo Clinic, 29 Mar. 2024, 


2. “Antioxidants.” The Nutrition Source, 3 Mar. 2021, 


3. Department of Health & Human Services. “Antioxidants.” Better Health Channel,

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