antioxidant, substance that prevents or slows the breakdown of another substance by oxygen. Synthetic and natural antioxidants are used to slow the deterioration of gasoline and rubber, and such antioxidants as vitamin C (ascorbic acid), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) are added to foods (see food additives) to prevent them from becoming rancid or from discoloring.
In the body, nutrients such as beta-carotene (a vitamin A precursor), vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium have been found to act as antioxidants. They act by scavenging free radicals, molecules with one or more unpaired electrons, which rapidly react with other molecules, starting chain reactions in a process called oxidation. Free radicals are a normal product of metabolism; the body produces its own antioxidants (e.g., the enzyme superoxide dismutase) to keep them in balance. However, stress, aging, and environmental sources such as polluted air and cigarette smoke can add to the number of free radicals in the body, creating an imbalance. The highly reactive free radicals can damage healthy DNA and have been linked to changes that accompany aging (such as age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in older people) and with disease processes that lead to cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
Studies have suggested that the antioxidants that occur naturally in fresh fruits and vegetables have a protective effect. For example, vitamin E and beta-carotene appear to protect cell membranes; vitamin C removes free radicals from inside the cell. There is still some question as to whether antioxidants in the form of dietary supplements counteract the effects of increased numbers of free radicals in the body. Some scientists believe that regular consumption of such supplements interferes with the body's own production of antioxidants.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.