by Marion Nestle
Mar 30 2009

Antioxidants as a marketing tool

Antioxidant nutrients are so important as marketing tools that they constitute their own brand, say British experts on such questions.  Apparently, up to 60% of consumers who see an antioxidant claim on a product label will buy it for that reason.  Despite lack of evidence that additional antioxidants make people healthier (and may actually do some harm), these claims are so popular that food companies introduced nearly 300 new antioxidant-labeled products into U.S. supermarkets last year.  I’ve been collecting choice examples: breakfast cereals, of course (they are always at the leading edge of nutritional marketing), but also jelly beans.  The marketing has become so competitive that unprocessed fruits and vegetables have to get into the act.  I’ve seen ads for blueberries, tomatoes, and artichokes advertising their high antioxidant content.  Of course they have antioxidants.   All fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, and theirs may actually do some good.

  • April

    To my understanding, there are no studies that show definitively that antioxidants can be harmful.

    The fact is, is that most of us do not get adequate daily servings of vegetables and fruit. Taking antioxidant supplements can be beneficial.

    Vitamin D is an antioxidant…doctors are now recommending even higher intake than before!

  • It’s just a buzzword. When I was still working in advertising I had a juice client that wanted to claim all the health benefits and antioxidant power of pomegranate even though their product had about 1% actual pomegranate juice. Sad part is, with a good copy writer they can make it sound like they really are offering amazing health benefits.

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  • I was recently swayed by clever marketing into purchasing a XXX Vitamin Water because it claimed to have “triple antioxidants.” Granted, I was extremely thirsty, and it seemed the lesser evil of several other Vitamin Water options in a vending machine. When I looked at the label though, it contained less than 1% juice, which begs the question, where are those antioxidants coming from? The label stated that it contained berry & fruit polyphenols, as well as vitamin C. Obviously, both sources are chemically derived, and as such not as likely to confer antioxidant benefits. No harm done, but, I was ulitmately more upset about the roughly 8 teaspoons of sugar in the entire bottle.

  • Foodaroo

    I’m afraid that the word “antioxidant” has been misused in the food industry is now a pseudonym for preservative, ie. sodium nitrate, citric acid, BHT, just to name a few. Technically, preservatives do slow down the oxidation, so in some sense they act like “antioxidants”, but the “antioxidant” you are thinking of can only be found in whole, uncut, unprocessed ingredients.

  • Jon

    Well, antioxidants (in the food additive sense) are a class of preservatives. Antioxidants could be all sorts of things; there’s even an argument to be made that saturated fat is an antioxidant (at least relative to unsaturated fats and carbohydrates). All living things produce antioxidants, though. You as a mammal produce stearic acid, palmitic acid, oleic acid, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, and melanin, among others; as a primate, you and I are incapable of producing vitamin C, though. (Some humans don’t produce G6PD in adequate amounts, and fava beans and antimalarial drugs cause hemolytic anemia in these people, usually men.)

    Re: Vitamin D, vitamin D is definitely a case for why you should get your nutrients the natural way. First because natural vitamin D is 100% free: You just have to spend some time outdoors. And secondly because fat-soluble vitamins can have toxic effects if overdone. It’s virtually impossible to do this with food without gaining weight, but with supplements and fortified foods, it becomes relatively easy.

  • Bix

    Marion is right. Antioxidants have been shown to be harmful when taken in large quantities.

    I blogged about some deleterious effects of too much vitamin C:

    And too much selenium:

    Oxidized compounds are used by the body as signals. We don’t want to prevent oxidation all the time.

  • Im currently studying dietetics, but before this i used to study nutritional medicine at Australian College of Natural Medicine, now Endeavour College of Natural Health. I remember being thaught to treat cold with Vit.C saturation, which means you take 1 gram (!) of Vit.C every half hour until you get dicomfort in your stomach- and that would be recommended dosage for curing a cold. That sounds insane- one can easily eat 12gr like that. A classmate had 15!When I asked the teacher about the scientific bacground for this the teacher replied that science cant prove everything. I replied that “you cant just make stuff up because of that”and got kicked out- and I believe I transferred to Queensland University of technology not long after that. Sad thing is- I had several houndreds classmates that will graduate and recommend this to their clients- as licenced nutritionists! Dietetics is more evidence based, but I still see ignorance every now and then. How come we are not allowed to question our what we are being thaught? A teacher told me that when doing a bachelor you arent supposed to think for yourself- only absorb. Some of the books used are from the 1970’s- its shocking! Anybody else had problems with that?

  • Yes, I agree that you can actually over-dose on antioxidants, but it’s plain common sense when you decide to take extra supplements, drinks etc..everything is ok in moderation. Just be sensible.

    Antioxidants work better when taken together (synergistically), they seem to have more effect in fighting free radicals.