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      A review of the epidemiological evidence for the ‘antioxidant hypothesis’

      , , ,
      Public Health Nutrition
      CABI Publishing

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          Abstract

          Objective:

          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.

          Background:

          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.

          Results:

          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.

          Conclusion:

          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.

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          Most cited references107

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          Effects of a combination of beta carotene and vitamin A on lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.

          Lung cancer and cardiovascular disease are major causes of death in the United States. It has been proposed that carotenoids and retinoids are agents that may prevent these disorders. We conducted a multicenter, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled primary prevention trial -- the Beta Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial -- involving a total of 18,314 smokers, former smokers, and workers exposed to asbestos. The effects of a combination of 30 mg of beta carotene per day and 25,000 IU of retinol (vitamin A) in the form of retinyl palmitate per day on the primary end point, the incidence of lung cancer, were compared with those of placebo. A total of 388 new cases of lung cancer were diagnosed during the 73,135 person-years of follow-up (mean length of follow-up, 4.0 years). The active-treatment group had a relative risk of lung cancer of 1.28 (95 percent confidence interval, 1.04 to 1.57; P=0.02), as compared with the placebo group. There were no statistically significant differences in the risks of other types of cancer. In the active-treatment group, the relative risk of death from any cause was 1.17 (95 percent confidence interval, 1.03 to 1.33); of death from lung cancer, 1.46 (95 percent confidence interval, 1.07 to 2.00); and of death from cardiovascular disease, 1.26 (95 percent confidence interval, 0.99 to 1.61). On the basis of these findings, the randomized trial was stopped 21 months earlier than planned; follow-up will continue for another 5 years. After an average of four years of supplementation, the combination of beta carotene and vitamin A had no benefit and may have had an adverse effect on the incidence of lung cancer and on the risk of death from lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and any cause in smokers and workers exposed to asbestos.
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            Lack of effect of long-term supplementation with beta carotene on the incidence of malignant neoplasms and cardiovascular disease.

            Observational studies suggest that people who consume more fruits and vegetables containing beta carotene have somewhat lower risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease, and earlier basic research suggested plausible mechanisms. Because large randomized trials of long duration were necessary to test this hypothesis directly, we conducted a trial of beta carotene supplementation. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of beta carotene (50 mg on alternate days), we enrolled 22,071 male physicians, 40 to 84 years of age, in the United States; 11 percent were current smokers and 39 percent were former smokers at the beginning of the study in 1982. By December 31, 1995, the scheduled end of the study, fewer than 1 percent had been lost to follow-up, and compliance was 78 percent in the group that received beta carotene. Among 11,036 physicians randomly assigned to receive beta carotene and 11,035 assigned to receive placebo, there were virtually no early or late differences in the overall incidence of malignant neoplasms or cardiovascular disease, or in overall mortality. In the beta carotene group, 1273 men had any malignant neoplasm (except nonmelanoma skin cancer), as compared with 1293 in the placebo group (relative risk, 0.98; 95 percent confidence interval, 0.91 to 1.06). There were also no significant differences in the number of cases of lung cancer (82 in the beta carotene group vs. 88 in the placebo group); the number of deaths from cancer (386 vs. 380), deaths from any cause (979 vs. 968), or deaths from cardiovascular disease (338 vs. 313); the number of men with myocardial infarction (468 vs. 489); the number with stroke (367 vs. 382); or the number with any one of the previous three end points (967 vs. 972). Among current and former smokers, there were also no significant early or late differences in any of these end points. In this trial among healthy men, 12 years of supplementation with beta carotene produced neither benefit nor harm in terms of the incidence of malignant neoplasms, cardiovascular disease, or death from all causes.
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              Flavonoid intake and long-term risk of coronary heart disease and cancer in the seven countries study.

              To determine whether flavonoid intake explains differences in mortality rates from chronic diseases between populations. Cross-cultural correlation study. Sixteen cohorts of the Seven Countries Study in whom flavonoid intake at baseline around 1960 was estimated by flavonoid analysis of equivalent food composites that represented the average diet in the cohorts. Mortality from coronary heart disease, cancer (various sites), and all causes in the 16 cohorts after 25 years of follow-up. Average intake of antioxidant flavonoids was inversely associated with mortality from coronary heart disease and explained about 25% of the variance in coronary heart disease rates in the 16 cohorts. In multivariate analysis, intake of saturated fat (73%; P = 0.0001), flavonoid intake (8%, P = .01), and percentage of smokers per cohort (9%; P = .03) explained together, independent of intake of alcohol and antioxidant vitamins, 90% of the variance in coronary heart disease rates. Flavonoid intake was not independently associated with mortality from other causes. Average flavonoid intake may partly contribute to differences in coronary heart disease mortality across populations, but it does not seem to be an important determinant of cancer mortality.
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                Author and article information

                Journal
                Public Health Nutrition
                Public Health Nutr.
                CABI Publishing
                1368-9800
                1475-2727
                May 2004
                January 02 2007
                May 2004
                : 7
                : 3
                : 407-422
                Article
                10.1079/PHN2003543
                15153272
                d0bda21b-0044-487e-b47b-215efe03cd11
                © 2004

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