Diet Experts: Antioxidants Not Key

J. Desmond Keefe III, left, an associate professor at the School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Management at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, New Hampshire, conducts a classroom demonstration on Thursday, December 1, 2005. Experts urge consumers to focus more on balance and variety in their diet rather than trying to eat so-called superfoods. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
Tired of trying to keep track of all the so-called superfoods you're supposed to eat?

You know, oregano that packs 42 times more antioxidants than apples, cooked tomatoes that may prevent prostate cancer, and chocolate and wine that may or may not be health foods?

Then here's the good news — you can stop trying.

Leading researchers say all those breathless headlines, food packaging claims and seemingly contradictory studies about what antioxidants can and can't do have fostered a faulty silver bullet mind-set that can hinder health more than help.

Instead, experts advise focusing on balance, moderation and variety, and leaving the phytochemicals, flavanols and phenolic acids to scientists.

Researcher Jeffrey Blumberg acknowledges that "doesn't seem to be a very sexy message. People would rather be told there is a superfood, a term I hate because in fact there is no such thing."

Foods labeled as antioxidant-rich — everything from bottled tea to bags of frozen berries — have become a $526 million industry that continues to grow.

Even foods that otherwise have seen sales slump are getting a boost from antioxidant claims, says Phil Lempert, a food industry analyst and editor of Sales of blueberry preserves, for example, are up, though overall jam sales are down.

"It's clear that regardless of whether or not people understand what 'rich in antioxidants' means, it is certainly a logo or a stamp that says 'Buy me! I'm going to help you live forever,"' Lempert says.

Maybe. Maybe not. Experts aren't suggesting antioxidants aren't important or that people shouldn't eat foods that contain them. Instead, they're saying not enough is known about how they work to justify focusing one's diet on any particular antioxidant or food.

It's all about quashing free radicals, harmful chemicals produced by the body and found in the environment that damage cells. That damage has been linked to a host of chronic conditions, from heart problems to cancer, even aging.

Diets rich in antioxidants — which are in countless foods — seem to minimize this damage. What's not clear is whether that benefit is due to the antioxidants themselves or to the overall diet and the way the antioxidants and other nutrients in it interact.

The evidence increasingly suggests the latter, says Howard Sesso, a professor of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. That means eating patterns make a difference, but probably not eating particular foods or taking supplements.