Antioxidant advertising: finding the balance between research and business

02 October 2017

The health and fitness industry is booming, with one in seven UK individuals a gym member and the global health food industry set to make $1 trillion in 2017. With high nutritional value, and some good marketing, food antioxidants are a major player in the sector.

Image: Kevin Lau@Flickr

The antioxidant market is in a fortunate position of continuing growth, with predictions of meeting a $3.5 billion income by 2023. Renowned in the industry for their healing powers, antioxidant-rich food – blueberries, dark chocolate, and kidney beans to name a few – are a favourite of the health-conscious consumer. However, as new research highlights new properties, businesses must keep their marketing up-to-date to responsibly inform the customer.   

Healing properties

Primarily used to prolong the shelf-life of foods, antioxidants inhibit the oxidation of other substances and are claimed to help prevent the development of cancer and cardiovascular diseases, amongst others. Their role in preventing disease is not verified, but is a commonly used in marketing products with antioxidants. In fact, studies have found a correlation between low-antioxidant diets and increased risk of chronic disease, but have struggled to show causation.

‘Antioxidants can prevent the generation of reactive oxygenated species which can break DNA strands in tissues and lead to serious disease through corrupted cell metabolism,’ explains Dr Rob Winwood, Manager of Scientific Communications at DSM Nutritional Products. Whilst we know that free radicals contribute to disease, it is still inconclusive whether antioxidants can seriously have a positive effect. It is advised that businesses are aware of these findings and do not oversell the healing value of antioxidants, taking into account the increased likelihood of individuals who eat antioxidants to also regularly participate in exercise.

runnersDeveloping research

Although neutralising oxidation can provide some benefits, scientists at the George Washington University have found evidence to the contrary. Their research suggests that while reactive oxygen species can be disruptive to cells, they are essential for repairing muscle. Large amounts of antioxidants can disrupt this healing process, worsen damage, and effectively make muscles weaker.

‘It is still a common belief within the fitness community that taking antioxidant supplements after a workout will help your muscles recover better,’ says Adam Horn, lead author of the research. ‘What we've done is figure out that mitochondria need to produce a very specific oxidative signal in response to muscle damage in order to help injured muscles repair.’

Winwood says there is more research that businesses need to consider when marketing their product. He says: ‘Recent science suggests that it is specific chemical components of foods, previously defined as antioxidant-rich, that are important for health rather than a crude measure of a foods antioxidant potential’.

Responsible marketing

Advertising and marketing agencies have a responsibility to keep up-to-date with new scientific research to provide their customers with a fair and beneficial service. Exaggerated claims are perhaps the reason behind common antioxidant ‘myths’, such as their role in muscle recovery. Tetley were subject to a TV ban after an advert for their green tea broke watchdog rules by claiming the antioxidants present in the product were more beneficial for your health than water, despite lack of evidence supporting the claim.

green teaBut marketing ‘myths’ can often overshadow the wealth of health benefits that an antioxidant-rich diet provides. While antioxidants have not been proven to stop disease, research does confirm a role in the prevention of DNA damage that can contribute to disease onset. There is a scientific basis to the industry’s claims of health benefits, but it is important that the facts do not become distorted or embellished in marketing.

SCI is committed to fostering science-based innovation through networking and distributing knowledge, and helping businesses bring quality products to market. Understanding antioxidants and their role in the food industry will be discussed at our upcoming ‘Food Antioxidants and Functional Ingredients - Shelf Life Extension, Nutrition and Health’ event. This two-day conference includes talks from experienced speakers on sources and applications, nutrition and health, and regulation. 

The event will be held on Wednesday 7 to Thursday 8 March 2018 at SCI’s London offices (14/15 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PS) and is organised jointly by our Lipids Group and Food Group.

By Georgina Hines

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