Antioxidants – what even are they?

You may have heard about certain foods being advertised as “full of antioxidants”, but what even are antioxidants? Are they worth the hype and should we care about them?
Firstly, you need to know what free radicals are to know about the function of antioxidants. Free radicals are small molecules that contain an unpaired electron and this causes them to be unstable and highly reactive in our bodies, which can damage cells and DNA. Free radicals can enter our bodies through exposure to cigarette smoking, air pollution and industrial chemicals but our bodies produce free radicals as a result of chemical reactions that occur within us, such as respiration.

Antioxidants are molecules that are stable enough to donate an electron to the free radical and neutralize it, reducing its ability to damage cells. Some antioxidants are formed through normal metabolism in our bodies but many are found in our foods. The main antioxidants cannot be produced in our bodies and these include vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid), vitamin E (also known as alpha tocopherol) and beta- carotene.
Foods high in vitamin C include broccoli, kiwi fruit, citrus fruits (oranges), red capsicum and strawberries. Vitamin E can be found in sunflower seeds, peanuts, asparagus and avocado.
Carrots, sweet potato, spinach and kale are rich in beta-carotene.

Antioxidants can be impacted by the way foods are cooked. It is advised to lightly stir fry vegetables, rather than boil them as the vitamins may be lost. Try to avoid cooking foods for a long time as this further reduces their antioxidant content and use as little water as possible.

Oxidative stress occurs when there is a negative imbalance of free radical formation and antioxidant defences, resulting in damage to our bodies that can lead to certain cancers, inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis and contribute to the process of ageing. So remember to eat lots of fruits and vegetables.

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