"Antioxidant dietary supplement" is a catch phrase that is bantered about without much clarification. American's are educated in the simple definition of antioxidant: cancer fighter. There is really more to be explained about how these supplements work. Still one thing that is unquestionably true is the high incidence of cancer especially in older people.
The American Cancer Society reported that between 1997 through 2001 the rate at which new cases of all types of cancer were diagnosed in the United States was about 470 per 100,000 people. During the same time period there were about 200 cancer deaths per 100,000 people per year. It further reported that 76% of all cancers are diagnosed in persons aged 55 and older. That would suggest that while the cancer rate is high; the death rate from cancer is not as high.
With that much cancer in the population it is no wonder that many people have decided on a course of preventative medicine. But what does an antioxidant dietary supplement really do and how does it work?
First, it must be explained that the villains as far as scientists know so far are "free radicals". These are oxygen molecules and some other reactive compounds that can damage human cells. These villains to human health are produced by viruses, pollutants, solar radiation and even normal cell processes.
There are three types of antioxidants which work in conjunction to stabilize free radicals and flush them from the body. Fat soluble antioxidants, like vitamin E and beta-carotene, are the first group of antioxidants which neutralize free radicals. The second type of antioxidant is surface-active. These are polyphenols which are phytochemicals or light absorbing substances which occur naturally and help in plant photosynthesis. The group of antioxidants comprised of these transport neutralized free radicals from the water soluble to the third type of antioxidant. There are over 4000 known polyphenals catalogued so far, the best being found in dark red fruits and vegetables.
The last group of antioxidants is that which is water soluble such as vitamin C. This water soluble antioxidant receives the neutralized free radical from the transporting surface-active antioxidant and takes it to the liver where it is made inert for excretion.
This complex interplay amount these three distinct antioxidants is believed to prevent a range of cancers from occurring in the first place. The degree to which a food or supplement possesses this capacity is measured by a new standardized test. This measurement is expressed as the food's oxygen radical absorbing capacity or ORAC. The best ORAC values are found in deep colored fruits and vegetables as well as green tea and herbs like rosemary. Extra virgin olive oil has the highest ORAC rating.
Only time can determine whether the American public is successful in lowering the rate at which cancer occurs. By arming itself with a basic understanding of the various substances that fight cancer's occurrence and making dietary changes accordingly they may have a positive impact on cancer.