Antioxidants have gained a reputation as a magic bullet capable of taking out age-inducing free radicals like a sniper. Most consumers get their ammunition from supplements; not only is it convenient, but they're assured of getting a consistent, maximum dose. Sales of antioxidant supplements topped $3 billion as recently as 2005, and chances are the number is much higher right now.
Then, in February, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a review of separate studies that, combined, showed no impact on the benefit of antioxidant supplements. In fact, it showed that certain ones, like vitamins A and E, could actually increase mortality. Consumers are still questioning the study seven months later, according to Mary Choate, dietitian for Co-op Food Stores in Lebanon, N.H.
“What people don't remember about that study is the objective was to assess the effect of antioxidant supplements,” she said. “They didn't hear that last word.”
Indeed, the debate has given retailers a new opportunity to talk about the role supplements play in life.
“Supplements are an addition to what you're presumed to be getting in the diet,” said Annette Dickinson, a nutritional consultant and past president of the Council on Responsible Nutrition. “So the best option is to follow the very best diet you can, and then, if you know you're short of something, use a supplement to compensate.”
Choate said supplements can play an important role for some consumer groups, such as vegans. But she tells her shoppers to consume as much source food as possible.
“You're getting phytochemicals, you're getting fiber, and satiation from the fiber and water in there,” she said. “So a lot is going on in a whole food that you don't get in a supplement.”