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The antioxidant myth: a medical fairy tale

05 August 2006
Lisa Melton
Magazine issue 2563

If popping pills to stave off the ravages of ageing sounds too good to be true, that's because it is, says Lisa Melton

CRANBERRY capsules. Green tea extract. Effervescent vitamin C. Pomegranate concentrate. Beta carotene. Selenium. Grape seed extract. High-dose vitamin E. Pine bark extract. Bee spit.

You name it, if it's an antioxidant, we'll swallow it by the bucket-load. According to some estimates around half the adults in the US take antioxidant pills daily in the belief they promote good health and stave off disease. We have become antioxidant devotees. But are they doing us any good? Evidence gathered over the past few years shows that at best, antioxidant supplements do little or nothing to benefit our health. At worst, they may even have the opposite effect, promoting the very problems they are supposed to stamp out.

It's little surprise that antioxidants have acquired a reputation as miracle health supplements. As long ago as the 1950s, scientists discovered that many diseases - including heart disease, strokes, cancer, diabetes, cataracts, arthritis and neurodegenerative ...

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(The complete article is 2595 words long but cannot be published in full here for copyright reasons)

ANH preliminary comment:

How many times can "they" rely on limited data that applies largely to single, synthetic nutrients used in intervention trials in a manner typical of drugs? We are compiling a detailed rebuttal on Dr Lisa Melton's article which we will disseminate widely in due course.

It is interesting to note that Dr Melton would appear to be far less critical when writing about drugs.  See for example, where she describes antibiotics as “the great warriors of modern medicine.”  

Interestingly, she has also previously supported a view on antioxidants which is diametrically opposed to her tone in the New Scientist article . This rather amusing/interesting/embarrassing contradiction can be found in Dr Melton's 2005 article in Scientific American where she refers to the possibility of “antioxidant pills” being used to counter free radicals which trigger sleep apnea, viz:

Prabhakar speculates that free radical scavengers might counter the devastating effects of sleep apnea. He has tested one such compound—a superoxide dismutase mimetic—in his rat model and found that the chemical averted hypertension. Could a humble antioxidant vitamin supplement do the same for human patients? An antioxidant pill would be an ideal solution, because the only existing therapy is cumbersome: it involves wearing a face mask connected to a positive airway pressure machine during the night to maintain a constant oxygen level.


Nevertheless, the story has been widely reported in the British and international media.  In the UK, the Daily Mail, for example, reported that “Vitamin tablets ‘may do more harm than good'.”

One wonders if this is just coincidence that the New Scientist story has been published just as arguments over EU-wide maximum levels as part of the next stage of the EU Food Supplements Directive are beginning to hot up?  In addition to this, the sheer weight of science behind antioxidants is one of the most powerful arguments behind higher nutrient dosages.  Another reason why they merit attack perhaps?

Stay tuned for our rebuttal which will appear on this website and will also be disseminated widely.