The Guardian ran an article recently pointing out that there was no evidence that antioxidant supplements reduce the risk of cancer. This was based on a Cochrane review that looked at a whole range of studies and analysed the numbers from all of them.
Despite involving very nearly 300,000 people and using diligent statistical techniques, they failed to show any reduced risk of dying. In fact, although both the Guardian and the Cochrane Review play this down, the people on the antioxidants died in greater numbers than the ones on placebo. The difference was about 3% overall, and 4% in some of the studies.
I think even after a study of this size it is too soon to conclude that antioxidant supplements are positively harmful. But when you think about it, it perhaps isn’t that hard a thing to believe. We all oxidise the food we eat to give us the energy to get through the day. If you could find a really effective antioxidant and add it to food you would stop the body from being able to use it. Ultimately it would starve you to death. So maybe antioxidants aren’t such a good idea.
The study I’m talking about is specifically about supplements, so it doesn’t cover antioxidant rich fruits like blueberries. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much data at all supporting or disproving our generally accepted notions of what constitutes a healthy diet. I’d say that it is entirely possible that eating an antioxidant rich fruit is good for you while eating the same antioxidants concentrated into a pill might be bad for you.
The saying in toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. Taking a pill is one way of getting a big dose over a short period of time. I think all the time I am basically healthy I am going to avoid anything in pill form, be it a mineral, vitamin or an antioxidant.
But how about products for the skin that contain antioxidants. Is it possible that they will turn out to be a bad thing as well? I think it is unlikely. The body’s workhorse antioxidant is vitamin E. And thirty percent of the body’s vitamin E is deployed in the skin. The skin is exposed to oxygen all the time, and is in a constant struggle against it. I think that there is a good case that even if it doesn’t help elsewhere in the body, it may well still help hold back aging in the skin.
But nobody has done a really big study yet, so like everyone else all I can do is guess.