It's been a tough season to be a blueberry.
First, a group of Dutch researchers came out with results from a study concluding that the antioxidant score of 5,000 participants didn't correlate to dementia or stroke risk.
Fox News picked up the story. As did NPR. The Times of India even ran with it. Within a few weeks, ABC News was calling antioxidants "over-hyped," and U.S. News and World Report was asking in banner-sized type: "Do You Really Need Antioxidants?" Their answer: Maybe, but probably not really.
The study in question was published Feb. 20 in the online issue of the journal Neurology. More than 5,000 people in the Netherlands, aged 55 or older, were given an antioxidant score, based on questionnaires about the foods they typically ate. The researchers compared these numbers with who developed dementia or had a stroke over the next 14 years.
“We asked, ‘Is the [measure] of total antioxidant levels the important predictor for dementia and stroke, irrespective of what foods are contributing?’” said Elizabeth Devore, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston and lead author of the study.
The answer was no. "Total antioxidant capacity of the diet, measured by dietary FRAP scores, does not seem to predict risks of major neurologic diseases," the study's authors concluded.
Antioxidants are substances that may prevent potentially disease-producing cell damage that can result from natural bodily processes and from exposure to certain chemicals. Examples of antioxidants include anthocyanins, beta-carotene, catechins, coenzyme Q10, flavonoids, lipoic acid, lutein, lycopene, selenium, and vitamins C and E.
A connection between vitamin C and reduced risk of stroke, and vitamin E with reduced risk of dementia, has been found in a number of studies. Last year, Devore found that eating lots of blueberries delayed cognitive decline in a large, ongoing Nurses Health Study.
There are probably other antioxidants such as flavonoids found in foods including onions, peas and berries that could be important, Devore told NPR.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine currently has 10 antioxidant-related studies under way that are actively recruiting participants.
Vegetables and fruits are rich sources of antioxidants. But according to NCCAM, dietary supplements account for a large percentage of antioxidant intake in the United States: 54 percent of vitamin C, 64 percent of vitamin E, 14 percent of alpha- and beta-carotene, and 11 percent of selenium.
The center views high-dose supplementation with suspicion. "Rigorous trials of antioxidant supplements in large numbers of people have not found that high doses of antioxidant supplements prevent disease," the agency states.
Supplementing with high doses of beta-carotene may increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers, and supplementing with high doses of vitamin E may increase risks of prostate cancer and one type of stroke, according to published studies.
Antioxidants a growing segment
Skepticism by a federal agency has not done much to temper consumers' enthusiasm for antioxidants.
Preliminary estimates by Nutrition Business Journal show that sales of antioxidants across all channels and as a food ingredient reached $5.6 billion for 2012, a 5.7% growth over the previous year.
For the complete business story on antioxidants, check out the Nutrition Business Journal/Engredea monograph report on antioxidants.
According to A. Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends Inc., anthocyanins, carotenoids, and resveratrol have recently become mass market opportunities. In 2010, 26% of consumers were aware of the health benefits of polyphenols/resveratrol, and 24% were aware of the benefits of flavonoids.
Ingredient supplier ChromaDex of Irvine, California, sees antioxidants' greatest benefits in the world of prevention —particularly for heart and cognitive health.
The company has built its business on an ever-expanding database of reference standards for phytochemicals. Its blueberry ingredient, pTeroPure pterostilbene,was launched in 2010. Pterostilbene is chemically related to resveratrol, the compound found in red wine that is believed to contain cardio, anti-ageing and cognitive benefits.
“The antioxidant market has surged over the past 10 years, largely due to the aging of the baby boomer generation being very proactive about seeking health care options and treatments," said. Ann Deren-Lewis, senior vice president of commercial development at ChromaDex. "With this in mind, I believe there is great potential in this market, especially in the area of cognitive function. Cognitive function —as a broad term for memory, focus and other mental functions — is a key concern for the aging population to maintain quality of life and functionality.
"There are now novel options, including supplements and food fortification, available to consumers that drastically assist in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. For example, EternalBlu, which recently won a Delicious Living award for Best Healthy Aging supplement, contains pTeroPure pterostilbene, a blueberry antioxidant thought to help support cellular health and other anti-aging properties. With options like supplements and food fortification available, prevention has become a key focus beyond just treatment.”
pTeroPure is currently found in about 40 products, largely distributed in the United States, but ChromaDex has worldwide distribution rights.