The fresh produce industry has put the “pro” in “antioxidants.” There are over 300 references to antioxidants in The Packer’s library, with articles so far this year touting the antioxidant levels in dates, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, tomatoes, mushrooms, grapes and a host of other “superfoods.”

 The first reference to antioxidants in The Packer’s digital library was 1994, which was close to the start of the period that we began compiling our digital library. At the time, the Washington Apple Commission was exploring the use of antioxidants as an anti-browning agent. Then in 1995, a story in The Packer referenced the kiwifruit as a nutrition powerhouse, both for traditional vitamins and the mysteriously beneficial antioxidants.

 Now the mention of traditional vitamins and fiber in fruits and vegetables is pedestrian marketing, more suitable to the rutabaga loving crowd than today’s hip generation. Everyone today, from the pushers of the Acai berry to the promoters of pomegranates to the marketers of mushroom are keying on the presence and level of antioxidants in their products.

 I doubt if most consumers could put together three sentences as to why antioxidants are good for them, but that’s not really the point. The point is, they believe in antioxidants --- at least so far.

 Is the industry invested too heavily in antioxidants? Do experts predict “antioxidant fatigue”? Not necessarily, but a recent Washington Post article reviews the science of antioxidants and reveals there is much we don’t’ know.

The story, by Jennifer LaRue Huget, is headlined “
Amid Efforts to Give Foods More Antioxidant Punch, Mysteries Remain
From the story:

Antioxidants are darlings of the nutrition world, valued for their purported health-promoting and disease-busting qualities. But even as Britz and Still toil away, neither is sure antioxidants are all they're cracked up to be. In fact, the two speak in nearly identical terms about how scientists still have only a limited understanding of these substances and how they work.

One of the great mysteries about antioxidants is whether they can work in isolation, as when they are taken in dietary supplements, or whether their efficacy depends on their interactions with one another and perhaps with other substances. Another is whether they can do harm: Recent research showing that vitamins C and E, taken as supplements, may reduce the health benefits of exercise has cast a pall on antioxidant supplements.

And there's a third mystery: Is the disease-fighting capacity of fruits and vegetables directly attributable to antioxidants, or is it based on some other qualities or compounds in these foods?

Victoria Drake, a research associate at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, put it this way in an e-mail: "Looking at the epidemiological data we have to date, we know . . . that diets rich in fruits and vegetables (antioxidant-rich foods) can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases. But evidence that very high doses of individual micronutrients or phytochemicals can do the same is inconsistent and relatively weak. [As with food-based antioxidants], we would need well-controlled clinical trials to properly address the 'antioxidant hypothesis.' A healthy diet is key; supplements should be used only as 'nutritional insurance.' "

A study in the May 29 issue of the journal PLoS Genetics raises the intriguing question of whether our bodies might benefit from some exposure to free radicals.

TK: It doesn’t seem that antioxidants will be discredited anytime soon, and scientists may well add to the halo of antioxidants, phytochemicals and flavonoids with further research. Caution against an “antioxidant backlash” suggests that produce marketers should remember to put the “new” in nutrition by promoting old school vitamins, minerals and fiber.