The British Nutrition Foundation was recently commissioned by the Food Standards Agency to conduct a review of the government's research programme on Antioxidants in Food. Part of this work involved an independent review of the scientific literature on the role of antioxidants in chronic disease prevention, which is presented in this paper.
There is consistent evidence that diets rich in fruit and vegetables and other plant foods are associated with moderately lower overall mortality rates and lower death rates from cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. The ‘antioxidant hypothesis’ proposes that vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids and other antioxidant nutrients afford protection against chronic diseases by decreasing oxidative damage.
Although scientific rationale and observational studies have been convincing, randomised primary and secondary intervention trials have failed to show any consistent benefit from the use of antioxidant supplements on cardiovascular disease or cancer risk, with some trials even suggesting possible harm in certain subgroups. These trials have usually involved the administration of single antioxidant nutrients given at relatively high doses. The results of trials investigating the effect of a balanced combination of antioxidants at levels achievable by diet are awaited.
The suggestion that antioxidant supplements can prevent chronic diseases has not been proved or consistently supported by the findings of published intervention trials. Further evidence regarding the efficacy, safety and appropriate dosage of antioxidants in relation to chronic disease is needed. The most prudent public health advice remains to increase the consumption of plant foods, as such dietary patterns are associated with reduced risk of chronic disease.