What Is The Purpose Of Antioxidants In Foods? #AntioxidantFacts

Disclosure: I received compensation to attend a virtual briefing and create an informational blog post about antioxidants on behalf of The Motherhood and ConAgra Foods. All opinions are strictly my own. What Is The Purpose Of Anitoxidants In Foods? #AntioxidantFacts

Have you ever wondered just what is the purpose of anitoxidants in foods? Added antioxidants?

For many, the idea of anything being added to our food makes them leery. But what many, myself included until recently, fail/failed to realize is that some additives are necessary and safe. And many of those additives are things that occur naturally in our bodies anyway. But we may not be producing enough to keep us healthy.

What Is The Purpose Of Antioxidants In Foods

One of those additives is antioxidants. Antioxidants are a type of preservative. I recently attended a very eye opening briefing on antioxidants and their purpose in our foods, hosted by ConAgra Foods and The Motherhood.

Presenters in the ConAgra antioxidant briefing were:

  • Lanie Friedman – Director, Communications & External Relations at ConAgra Foods
  • Kelly Magurany, Sc., DABT – Principal Research Scientists- Toxicology – Food Protection and Regulatory Affairs at ConAgra Foods
  • Kristi Reimers, RD, PhD, Nutrition – Director of Nutrition in Research & Innovations at ConAgra Foods

One thing I learned is that while we would love to have foods with absolutely nothing added, that actually isn’t possible due to rapid spoilage and rancidity. And not only for mass produced foods like what we purchase in grocery stores. But other fresh foods we eat. Think about the last time you added lime juice to a cut avocado or lemon juice to apple slices. You added antioxidants to them!

When air hits something it immediately begins to change. The oxygen in the air starts to break down the fats and oils in our food causing them to go rancid which not only makes them smell and taste bad but in some cases they can be hazardous to our health. Antioxidants control that. So your food lasts longer and tastes better. Foods like breads, cereals and even microwave popcorn would spoil in just a couple of days without antioxidants.

But are antioxidants added to our food safe?

Whether man-made or natural, all antioxidants, when consumed as part of a balanced diet, are safe for your food and for your body.ConAgra Foods

Some of the scientific names of antioxidants can sound very scary. For instance, Alpha-Tocopherol. Really, all that is is Vitamin E, a natural antioxidant, found in nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables. A big name for a little vitamin with a huge job. Another is Ascorbic Acid. Well acid anything sounds scary to me but what it really is, is Vitamin C.

There is a really great video that gives information, in layman’s terms, about the use of antioxidants and their benefits and safety. You can find it here: https://mentalfloss.com/article/62014/6-facts-about-preservatives

Things covered in the ConAgra Antioxidant briefing included:

Preservatives: 101

Why should we preserve our food?

  • Taste
  • Freshness
  • Safety
  • Natural color preservation
  • Food waste reduction

How can we preserve our food?

  • Methods like canning and freezing – even putting foods in the fridge helps preserve foods
  • Ingredients can be added to every day packaged foods to help preserve them

What is an antioxidant?

  • Antioxidants help prevent oxygen from damaging other molecules. Antioxidants function in the body to help protect cells, and they function in foods to protect oils from damage that leads to rancidity.

Antioxidants in the Body

  • We have many antioxidants that are naturally produced in our body every day, such as after exercise; these antioxidants help fend off environmental toxins and stress on the body
  • Our bodies carefully control the amount of antioxidants in our cells; we can get very sick if the normal level of antioxidants in our body becomes too low
  • Some of our most important vitamins, such as vitamin E and vitamin C, are used in our body as antioxidants
  • Body benefits of antioxidants:
    • Slow the aging process
    • Boost your body’s natural defense system
    • Help combat heart disease, cancer and other diseases

Antioxidants in Food

  • Like the vitamins in your body, certain foods contain natural antioxidants, such as polyphenols; some foods may also contain man made antioxidants
  • When you open a box of food, the exposure to air can cause certain ingredients that are common in our food, like fats and oils, to spoil; the unpleasant odors and flavors that follow are sometimes called “rancidity”
  • Food benefits of antioxidants:
  • Prevent food from becoming rancid (spoiling), and therefore wasted
  • Preserve food’s flavors
  • Help preserve natural color in food

Antioxidants Naturally Found in Food

  • Alpha-tocopherol (aka Vitamin E) – Found in nuts, seeds and leafy green vegetables – helps to protect fats and oils in food from spoiling
  • Ascorbic Acid (aka Vitamin C) – Found in citrus fruits, sometimes also called sodium ascorbate –saves breads and packaged meat from spoiling
  • Citric Acid – Found naturally in citrus fruits – used to preserve sliced fruit

Man Made Antioxidants in Food

  • BHT: A tasteless, colorless man made antioxidant is used to help maintain freshness in grain-based foods like crackers and cookies
  • TBHQ: A tasteless, colorless man made antioxidant used commonly to keep vegetable oils and other packaged foods fresh

Natural v. Man Made Antioxidants

  • Man made antioxidants, like BHT and TBHQ, are used because sometimes natural antioxidants throw off flavors of foods we know and love, or because a certain antioxidant might perform best with a certain food
  • One type is used over another based on performance – for example TBHQ is often used in fryer oils as it is more stable at higher temperatures than BHT, thus preserving these foods more effectively
  • Natural and man made antioxidants are sometimes used together in our favorite foods
  • Food makers, like ConAgra Foods, choose certain preservative ingredients based on what they know will deliver the best flavor, while keeping your foods safe and fresh

Not all man made ingredients are unsafe. Not all natural ingredients are safe. And too much of anything can be bad for you!

There were some amazing questions asked by fellow attendees as well as a couple by myself. These questions ranged from how and where man made antioxidants come from to their safety and even what types and how long they have been in use. Many natural antioxidants include vitamin E, Vitamin C and citric acid. So they are man made chemicals made from natural ingredients. Two common man made antioxidants are BHT and TBHQ. BHT stands for butylated hydroxytoluene and TBHQ stands for tertiary- butylhydroquinone. They’re chemical names, but … their structures are very similar to natural antioxidants. So, where they come from or are made from are similar sources. And there are a variety of sources. One example of a source in making BHT is pine oil. But that is not the only option. Our suppliers identify the most cost-effective way in developing these compounds.

They have been used for over 60 years. I asked if the cancer rates for the last 60 years have been monitored in correlation to the use of the antioxidants and the answer was not what I’d expected to hear.

The answer:  In general, the science world monitors cancer rates for everything. But there has actually been work done with BHT in looking at any increased cancer rates. Large epidemiology studies, which are studies in populations of humans, found that there was no increase risk, and in fact, they saw a decreased cancer risk. What they find is that these antioxidants do have some anti-carcinogenic properties.

One question asked if there are natural antioxidants available, what is the need for man-made antioxidants?

The answer was: Natural antioxidants often times impart a flavor, a taste or even an odor to foods, so they are not always the best choice for us if we want to maintain the high quality of flavors that our consumers love. So we look to man-made antioxidants that are tasteless and colorless and odorless at the low levels used in food to maintain those flavors.

Now, this briefing was about the use of antioxidants as preservatives, not about other preservatives and their safety. An attendee asked if there is a difference between antioxidants and preservatives? Is it because antioxidants sound more consumer-friendly? Is there an actual difference or are they the same thing?

The answer was: There is actually a difference. The difference is that preservatives identify all compounds used to preserve food with different functions. So some preservatives are used to reduce bacterial populations in food. Antioxidants are specific to oxidized damage. An antioxidant is actually a type of preservative.

We learned so much during this briefing and it was really just the tip of the ice berg. There is no way I could cover everything in one blog post. I do have more questions and answers if you would like to read them. If so, let me know in the comments and I’ll create a download.

The main point that we learned is that antioxidants, when used as preservatives in our foods, are safe and effective.

Regardless of whether they are man-made or natural, antioxidants are used to preserve the flavor, color, and improve the shelf-life of foods. They have both been studied and tested for their safety in our foods. Both must be used at low levels in accordance with regulatory guidelines and safety thresholds.  Both must be “food grade” so as not to introduce hazardous by-products or impurities in foods. 

I’m not saying all preservatives are safe. I’m only referring to antioxidants in particular. In my personal opinion, they are safe enough to use in our foods. I just wanted to provide some info for you all regarding the use and purpose of antioxidants in foods so you can make an educated decision for yourself.

Thanks for reading!

We are not doctors and this is in no way intended to be used as medical advice and we cannot be held responsible for your results. As with any product, service or supplement, use at your own risk. Always do your own research before using.

Leave a Comment