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Is ‘antioxidant’ the most powerful food label?

Everything from cereals to cosmetics have been branded as potent disease fighters. “Today” food editor Phil Lempert explains the hype.

Antioxidants have made quite a name for themselves. With all the new research linking antioxidants to the prevention of diseases, consumers have been bombarded with a slew of new antioxidant claims and products. The food industry has added “rich in antioxidants” labels to foods that have always contained antioxidants as well as to other products. Even the cosmetic industry now boasts antioxidants in their face, body, and hair care products, claiming wrinkle and sun damage fighting benefits. Antioxidants have been heralded as magic health bullets, and indeed they do play a role in disease prevention.

And while these is some controversy of just what antioxidants can and cannot do for our bodies, the truth is that this health message has created a fast and significant shift in some categories.

While it maybe true that the dollar volume of those products labeled for their “antioxidant” benefits increased by 19 percent in the last year according to ACNielsen Label Trends,  the Equivalized Volume actually decreased by 6.1 percent.

But the sales and volume story has a twist.

We shoppers seem to be searching and buying our antioxidants differently than we were just a few years ago. It was the vitamin category which seemed to be riding the wave with mega-doses of antioxidant capsules, powders and even ready-to-drink cocktails. As more non-vitamin products touted their free radical fighting powers, sales of the “antioxidant rich” multiple vitamins declined — over 14 percent — or almost $16.5 million in just one year, which accounted for most of the decline.

Nutritional supplements, breakfast cereals and tea appear to have taken over the “antioxidant” trend. Lipton, having developed and marketed the “AOX Seal” effectively, was able to establish in the minds of shoppers the health and black tea connection.

Pomegranate juice advertised heavily for its antioxidants grew almost 88 percent in the same period and blueberries, the fruit highest in antioxidants, saw sales of its frozen product grow almost 30 percent with no advertising.

Long term, it is possible that the public relations and educational efforts being made by the produce companies, and their trade groups, may create even more change as they promote their message: that colorful, balanced diet from a variety of plant sources provides one with a wide array of antioxidants and phytochemicals that are most effective at fighting free radical damage.

A colorful, balanced diet from a variety of plant sources provides you with a wide array of antioxidants and phytochemicals that are most effective at fighting free radical damage. But if you're like most Americans, you're not getting enough grains, vegetables, or fruits. What you should be eating:

  • 3 or more servings of vegetables
  • 3 or more servings of fruits
  • 6 or more servings of whole grains (from whole grain breads, cereals, rice, pastas)
  • 2 or more servings of legumes (beans, nuts, seeds)

Decorate your plate with richly colored vegetables and fruits for antioxidants carotenoids, vitamins A and C, plus a variety of other vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals. Dark greens: broccoli, spinach, kale, collards, Swiss chard, romaine lettuce, avocados, parsley. Red, orange, yellow: tomatoes, yellow squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, yams, bell peppers, carrots, mangoes, papaya, apricots, cantaloupe, berries, kiwi, watermelon, citrus fruits. Choose organic produce whenever possible, especially with spinach, broccoli, parsley, berries, and others that can be difficult to wash thoroughly or that have edible skins. The pesticide residues may be cancerous in our bodies.

Whole grains and legumes provide selenium, vitamin E, heart healthy soluble fiber, and a host of other phytochemicals. Good sources are brazil nuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts, other nuts, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, other seeds, wheat, oats, soy, and beans.

It is important to include antioxidant rich foods as part of your daily diet. As for the cosmetic claims for antioxidants, there is limited evidence so far that antioxidants applied topically to the skin can prevent oxidative damage, and most preparations don't contain enough antioxidants to have much effect. If you are worried about the physical effects of aging on skin such as wrinkling, follow the same guidelines for health and for preventing all free radical diseases: eat a healthy diet prescribed above, drink plenty of clear water, avoid smoke and alcohol, stay out of strong sunlight and wear sunscreen year round. Antioxidants can help some, but your overall diet and lifestyle choices are more crucial in preventing diseases than your intake of any one nutrient.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at