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Natural Foods Merchandiser
Stocking quality antioxidants

Stocking quality antioxidants

To say that antioxidants are in demand could be the understatement of the decade. Thanks to a flurry of positive research published in the 1990s, extensive media coverage and greater acceptance that free radicals contribute to aging, a category that was once just a blip in the supplements world is now a major sales generator. According to Nutrition Business Journal, U.S. antioxidant sales reached $4.6 billion in 2008—a 5.8 percent jump from 2007. Yet the loads of antioxidant products entering the marketplace are not equally effective. Here's what you need to know in order to stock—and sell—quality antioxidant products.

Don't rely on ORAC
Increasingly, supplement companies have engaged in wars over oxygen radical absorbance capacity, or ORAC, rolling out an endless stream of new products touting ever-higher ORAC scores. In general, researchers agree ORAC—which measures a substance's potential for squelching free radicals—is a useful tool for identifying which compounds deserve additional investigation. But because it's a test-tube study and not performed on humans, ORAC doesn't tell the whole story. In fact, new research from the University of Massachusetts reveals that basing antioxidant-strength claims on test tube assays, such as ORAC, could be misleading. When researchers put different antioxidants to the test, they found that even if a compound had a high ORAC score, it didn't necessarily fight the negative effects of free radicals in complex foods, like ground beef, on humans.

What we should be looking for, according to Anthony Almada, founder of Imaginutrition, a nutritional technology think tank in Laguna Niguel, Calif., is not how strong an antioxidant is in a lab test but rather how it affects specific goals, such as decreased heart attack risk or increased lifespan. "Focus on the ultimate end point: Does it work in humans? If it doesn't, then you're buying hope, prayer and faith," he says. How do you know if the product a sales rep is pitching you is backed by such research? Almada suggests posing this question: "Could you bring me, next time you come in, all or any of the published studies showing this product—not one of the ingredients but the actual product that you're marketing to me— works in humans better than a placebo?"

Alexander Schauss, Ph.D., president of AIBMR Life Sciences, a nutraceuticals consulting company based in Puyallup, Wash., agrees that proof of efficacy is paramount. "Ultimately, the bottom line is has it been demonstrated to be of benefit to animals and humans? [A great ORAC score] doesn't make a difference if it doesn't demonstrate scientifically, and experimentally, that it can really help people." He believes the industry will see a strong movement toward antioxidant certification, citing as an example the Certified Bioavailable Antioxidants Program developed by Klamath Falls, Ore.-based research laboratory NIS Labs. According to the company, the program issues certifications to manufacturers for products that have undergone testing in humans using its proprietary red blood cell–based test.

Identify quality products
According to Almada, three factors define a quality product: safety, efficacy as demonstrated in humans, and content uniformity—or consistency from batch to batch.

Schauss is partial to functional-fruit beverages because their antioxidant compounds are easy to absorb. He cites acaí, pomegranates, mangosteens, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, black raspberries and red raspberries as fruits that have been shown to have in vivo biological effects—observed in animal or human models versus test tubes. Yet Schauss cautions that not all functional-fruit beverages are alike. For example, his company conditioned a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical trial on an unclarified acaí juice and found the antioxidant compounds were absorbed in humans and cut down free radical damage. "Now if other people out there clarify it and filter the acaí in the beverage to make it much clearer, will it be beneficial?" he asks. "That's a separate study."

Sara Lovelady writes about health, marketing and the business of supplements from her home in Ashland, Ore.

Antioxidant basics
The body produces unstable molecules called free radicals in response to ultraviolet radiation, cigarette smoke, stress, lack of sleep, toxins and even normal metabolism and immune function. "Every time we take a breath of air, we have approximately 21 percent to 22 percent oxygen in the air. And about 1 percent to 1.2 percent of that turns into a free radical," says nutriceutical consultant Alexander Schauss, Ph.D.

Although the unstable molecules get a bad rap, they serve an important function: killing bacteria, viruses and cancer cells. But when the body's balance between free radicals and antioxidants gets off-kilter, some healthy cells become targets, explains Schauss. The free radicals attack a healthy cell's DNA, creating defective proteins—or worse, mutant cells—leading to tissue and organ damage.

"Antioxidant" is a catchall term for any substance that stabilizes a free radical before it has a chance to do any damage. "An antioxidant basically becomes a suicide substrate," says Anthony Almada, founder of Imaginutrition. "It steps in front of a tissue molecule and says, 'Sacrifice me, don't hit the DNA!' " With the exception of Pycnogenol, antioxidants mainly come from two places—food and normal body function. Some common food antioxidants include carotenoids, found in yellow-orange fruits and vegetables such as squash and carrots; lycopene, found in tomatoes; bioflavonoids, abounding in citrus fruits; and anthocyanins, occurring in berries, grapes and purple corn. Most folks don't get enough antioxidants through their diet alone, so antioxidant-supplement manufacturers have rushed to fill the void.


Anthony Almada recommends…
Coenzyme Q10: Improves symptoms of cardiomyopathy (inflammation and reduced strength of the heart muscle) and congestive heart failure; may improve cellular energy metabolism and looks promising for treating Parkinson's disease.

Green tea beverage (not extract): May help reduce belly fat and make insulin work better.

L-theanine: Relieves anxiety.

N-acetyl cysteine: Shown to reduce the body's free-radical load, detoxify the liver-damaging effects of acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol), benefit chronic bronchitis, reduce atrial fibrillation (a type of abnormal heart rhythm) and increase endurance during exercise.

Oligonol: An extract from lychee fruit, shown to reduce the body's free-radical load.

Pycnogenol: A pine-bark extract shown to reduce the body's free-radical load, quell pain and inflammation and enhance blood flow.

Vitamin C: May reduce the duration and severity of the common cold.

Vitamin E: Shown to reduce the body's free-radical load and help alleviate intermittent, exercise-induced muscle pain.


5 tips for selling antioxidants

  1. Stock quality products. No matter how popular an antioxidant product is, don't carry it if you have questions about its legitimacy. "We are supposed to be the gatekeepers," says David Stouder, owner of Apple Health Foods in Redwood City, Calif. "If we allow the companies we deal with to start pedaling overpriced, hokey stuff, it's sort of our fault." To quickly assess the level of science behind a given product, go to and click on Health Notes, which gives products a one-, two- or three-star scientific rating.
  2. Sell by condition. Most people search for supplements because they want to address a specific condition. Consider organizing the antioxidant shelf of your supplement section by what the products are intended to treat—lycopene for prostate health, CoQ10 for heart health, N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) for liver health. Then hang shelf talkers identifying each condition so consumers know which antioxidants do what.
  3. Know why every product is on your shelf. It's fine to carry multiple brands of green tea, Stouder says, but you'd better be able to explain why. "Whether this one's standardized and this one's freeze-dried and this one has the highest level of ECGC [a compound in tea], somebody needs to be able to explain it." Schedule regular staff trainings with product manufacturers so your employees can speak intelligently about the products you carry.
  4. Stay current with science. You can't direct consumers toward products that work if you don't know what they are. To stay current on just-published studies, subscribe to,, and
  5. Don't discount anecdotes. Stouder says that because of the high cost of doing original research in humans, many products lack studies yet deliver excellent results. "It's great to have science but it's more important that the product works," he explains.



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