So what will headlines such as the BBC’s ‘Antioxidants cannot slow ageing’ and the Guardian’s ‘Antioxidants fail to protect the body’ mean for the industry? Will swathes of informed consumers shun the plethora of products claiming antioxidant benefits?
It would be a shame if they did.
Not only is the antioxidant tag an important marketing tool, there is significant evidence to suggest antioxidants and substances that stimulate our antioxidant defence systems can protect against environmental pollution, in particular UV damage.
Although the recent work published by the London-based researchers questioned the theory that endogenous reactive oxygen species (ROS) are the guilty party in ageing, it did not suggest that antioxidants, and substances that can stimulate antioxidant defence systems, cannot be of benefit to the body.
Nevertheless, companies need to avoid being tarred by the question mark that may now hang over antioxidants in consumers’ minds. In order to do this, they must be more specific with their marketing claims.
Questioning the oxidative theory of ageing
Lead researcher Dr David Gems and his team investigated what happened when the genes for important antioxidant enzymes (superoxide dismutases or SODs) were removed in nematode worms.
If the oxidative theory of ageing is correct; if it really is endogenous ROS that are the main cause of molecular damage and therefore lead to ageing; removing the organism’s protection system should lead to shorter nematode lifespans.
It did not. Knocking out the SOD genes had little effect on the lifespan of the worms. According to Gems, this result is another nail in the coffin for the oxidative theory of ageing.
But, does this mean that antioxidants and antioxidant-like substances have no potential benefit to human skin and the body in general?
In short, no. The recent study focuses only on endogenous ROS that are produced by the mitochondria during energy production and their effect on ageing.
However, in addition to these endogenous oxygen species, there are many external factors, such as UV radiation, that lead to the production of exogenous ROS, and there is a growing body of scientific literature to suggest that antioxidants, and substances that stimulate antioxidant defence systems, can help to protect against this.
Much of the work has focused on substances such as phytofluene and sulforaphane, found in tomatoes and broccoli respectively, and suggests they have strong potential to protect the skin against UV damage.
Research into the oxidative theory of ageing says nothing about the potential of such substances to protect against exogenous ROS and it would be alarming if consumers came to mistrust these claims simply through association with the antioxidant tag.
Claims must be more specific
Part of the problem is the tendency of industry to use the term in product marketing as a catch all.
Products parading their antioxidant status rarely explain the substances’ purpose within the formulation. Far from overwhelming the consumer with unnecessary detail, clarifying product claims could stand companies in good stead, particularly in the light of increasing criticism of the oxidative theory of ageing.
Claims based solely on the oxidative theory of ageing may be proved bogus if it is discredited. However, those whose in-house research has illustrated potential benefits of including antioxidants in their formulations will survive the attack, if they can communicate this to consumers.
Questioning long-held beliefs is crucial to the advancement of science in all sectors. It saves us from spending precious time and resources on areas that do not hold real benefits.
But we need to make sure the conclusions are understood, by both the industry and the consumer. And this depends, at least in part, on tightening up the use of marketing taglines, including the ubiquitous antioxidant label.
Katie Bird is a science reporter writing on industry-related issues in several Decision News Media publications. If you would like to comment on this article, please e-mail Katie.Bird 'at' decisionnews.com.