Antioxidants and oxidative stress


We may have an iron health, but we always end up rusting.  Jacques Prévert, French poet, screenwriter and artist. 1900 – 1977


Did Jacques Prévert know about antioxidants? No idea, but, he couldn’t tell the truth. Our body, just like metals, faces constant oxidative attacks. Oxygen is essential for our survival, but its use by the cells of the body is not without danger. A significant portion (1-2%) of the oxygen we breathe is transformed into toxic derivatives called free radicals. However, these highly reactive molecules are not only enemies because they have important biological functions by intervening in particular in cell signaling. We therefore need them, but when they are in excess, they can also attack all the constituents of life and promote chronic diseases. Antioxidants therefore have an important role in preventing free radicals from damaging cellular components such as proteins, lipids and DNA.

During aging, the generation of free radicals increases and their amount becomes greater than the capacity of our body’s antioxidant defenses including glutation. This imbalance called oxidative stress will lead the body to a pathological state. The oxidation of biomolecules by free radicals is involved in several pathologies such as cardiovascular diseases (arteriosclerosis), neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s), cancer, cataracts, as well as aging. It is also the basis for the formation of wrinkles. Consumption rich in antioxidant compounds could mitigate the impact.

What is a free radical?

In our molecules, electrons are normally grouped in pairs and rotate around the nucleus. A free radical is a molecule with a single electron and free radicals that have only one electron are in principle unstable. A diseased cell, that is, a cell missing an electron, seeks to stabilize or heal itself. So she attacks another cell to steal an electron. The molecule thus attacked and which leaves an electron there becomes a free radical. This free radical in turn seeks to recover the missing electron from another cell and this becomes an eternal chain reaction. In biology, the free radicals produced in these reactions can eventually alter the properties of a molecule entirely. This is called cell damage.

The dangers of free radicals


Oxidative stress and its effects on health

The dangers of free radicals.


By definition, an antioxidant is a substance with a low concentration compared to that of the oxidisable substrate capable of delaying or stopping the oxidation of the substrate. In pictorial terms, the steel hull of a boat and the saline water that will make it rust for sure. The antioxidant? The paint that covers the hull and prevents salt water from attacking the metal. The more protective and thick the paint, the stronger and more effective the protection of the steel shell from rust.


Glutathione, the most powerful antioxidant

We keep talking about the antioxidants found in our diet without ever talking about glutathione which is a much more powerful antioxidant than any antioxidant provided by the diet. It originates in our body and is the most important natural antioxidant of the latter. Its production is carried out by the liver. Glutathione, a compound of 3 amino acids,cysteine, glutamic acid and glycine, controls most of the vital processes of our cells. It is a molecule that is considered essential to the appearance of human life.

Glutathione helps prevent damage to cellular components caused by active oxygen derivatives such as free radicals. While optimizing the functioning of the natural defense system, glutathione promotes the elimination of pollutants by binding to toxins to transform them into water-soluble compounds easily eliminated in bile or urine. It participates in the elimination of metals.

As for the so-called heavy metals, only a few of them have no use for the human body. Lead, cadmium and mercury are among them. If the international community still uses the term heavy metals as a synonym for toxic metals, it is because they are increasingly present in our environment. They are in the air, in the water we drink and even in the vegetables we eat. Mercury is one of the most toxic because in each cell it is estimated that there are 100,000 chemical reactions that all depend on enzymes. Not all mercury research has found a single enzyme that mercury does not affect. Glutathione is very important for the body’s detoxification mechanism because it can, among other things, bind to mercury, capture it and get it out of it.

An Atlanta research team conducted by Dr. Dean Jones in 2002 told us that as they approach their fifties, men and women become much more fragile in the face of free radicals and that this fragility is due to a decline in glutathione. Moreover, 45-50 years correspond to the critical age of human aging. It is during this period of our lives that we begin to know the phenomena of degeneration. In addition to age that naturally reduces glutathione, there are many factors in modern life that amplify the problem. These include pollutants, pesticides, emotional stress, medications, excessive exercise, tobacco, alcohol, ultraviolet rays, food additives and preservatives.

We must therefore compensate because low levels of glutathione are associated with a set of disorders and problems including memory loss, tremors and poor coordination. We can at least remedy this by a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables, but also in animal proteins and cereals as little processed as possible.

Despite its essential role, glutathione is rarely prescribed by doctors and little marketed in pharmacies where we prefer to offer you vitamin C or synthetic vitamin E as antioxidants.


What is the ORAC index and is it really indicative of the antioxidant capacity of a food?

ORAC is the acronym for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. In French, its meaning is as follows: ability to absorb oxygen radicals. It is a method of measuring antioxidant capacities in biological samples. In short, one (1) ORAC represents the antioxidant capacity of vitamin E. A food that has 10 ORACS therefore has 10 times the ability to stop oxidation as Vitamin E. That’s theoretical, but what about it in practice?

An ORAC test is done in the laboratory and not on humans. It is a very useful measuring instrument for the scientific community, which considers it an excellent indicator, but one that must be put in context and not taken alone. This is because a food can have a very powerful ORAC and not be effective at all. For example, several molecules composing a food or even a drug do not succeed in digestive acids and are eliminated before being used by our body and are, therefore, ineffective. This partly explains why some medications must be given intravenously. Having a strong ORAC in itself does not mean on its own that it is effective on the body. Much like a big engine can’t transmit its power without transmission.

On the official list of the USDA appeared at the top the ORAC the clove. And that was an ORAC of 25,000. For the wild blueberry that the USDA considered and still considers to be one, if not the most complete and powerful antioxidant in the world, its ORAC varied between 30 and 45 depending on the species and their place of origin. In fact, the most sought-after antioxidant that blueberries contain is anthocyanin, this molecule active against cancer, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, vision, skin quality, and finally, everything that we recognize from blueberries as a health contribution. For cloves, the active molecule sought is eugenol. The latter is very powerful to eliminate bacteria. It also has strong properties and is used to relieve toothache. The eugenol of cloves is at the origin of its strong and tonic fragrance. Is the health contribution of cloves more than 600 times that of blueberries? Not at all. This demonstrates the importance of not taking ORAC as an absolute value that dictates what we need to consume to stay healthy.

The interpretation and especially the use made of it by some players in the natural health products and food industry was so biased that the USDA had to remove the list of ORAC values that it made public on its website.


Enough is like not enough!

According to Dr. Richard Béliveau, one of the most renowned Quebec researchers, you have to be careful with taking antioxidants because too much would be like not enough. According to him, even if in theory the administration of massive doses of antioxidants capable of neutralizing the destructive action of free radicals should have very positive effects on health, this would unfortunately not be the case. Indeed, a very large number of studies carried out over the past 20 years have clearly shown that the massive intake of certain antioxidants does not reduce the risk of heart disease or cancer and that, on the contrary, their excessive intake is associated with an increased risk of mortality. In this sense, high amounts of vitamin E seem particularly harmful, since these supplements cause a marked increase in the risk of lung cancer when combined with beta-carotene (in smokers), a significant increase in the risk of prostate cancer, and a significant decrease in life expectancy.

According to Dr. Béliveau, It is therefore likely that abnormally high concentrations of antioxidants taken in the form of supplements interfere with certain important functions played by free radicals and at the same time disrupt the normal functioning of the body.

(Reference: Dr. Richard Béliveau, Journal de Montréal, May 22, 2016).


Classification of major classes of foodborne antioxidants

Foodborne antioxidants fall into 4 categories:
– carotenoids
– vitamins,
– trace elements
– polyphenols.


Polyphenols are chemical compounds naturally present in the plant kingdom,especially in northern berries. There are more than 8000 different phenolic molecules, such as simple molecules, such as phenolic acids, much more complicated molecules (tannins) and others that can be complexed to sugars, proteins and even lipids.

Table illustrating the different polyphenols
The classification of polyphenols

Flavonoids are present throughout the plant kingdom, with the exception of fungi and algae. They are derivatives of water-soluble (water-soluble) polyphenols, often colorless or yellow (with exceptions, such as anthocyanins). Flavonoids are in themselves an extremely large family of compounds, playing important physiological roles (nutritional, medicinal, UV filters…). They are present in the berries of Quebec, are of particular interest for human health and are the subject of many medicinal claims, particularly for their strong antioxidant capacity.

Flavonoids are themselves classified according to their degree of oxidation into subgroups such as:
– flavonols
– flavones
– flavanols
– isolflavones
– pro anthocyanidins
– anthocyanins (Ref 4 W)


Isoflavones are compounds found mainly in legumes (for example in soybeans whose phytoestrogenic properties are widely studied). Some isoflavone derivatives are powerful agents against certain bacteria. They have bacteriostatic properties and are specifically induced during infections by plant pathogenic organisms. In particular, many phytoalexins are found in legumes (e.g. phaseollin from beans, glyceolin from soybeans).


Pro anthocyanidins whose heteroside derivatives are called pro anthocyanins are flavonoid compounds found in many plants, especially in the skin and seeds of grapes and cranberries.

Blueberry anthocyanins

Anthocyanins are flavonoids found in the plant kingdom that give the characteristic color of leaves, flowers and fruits. These are colored compounds (orange, purple to blue) and usually water-soluble. Unlike other flavonoids, anthocyanins absorb most of the time in the ultraviolet spectrum. They play a major part in the coloration of petals, but they are also found in many plant tissues. Their synthesis in the leaf organs is often activated by stress (cold, deficiencies, senescence …). Their compounds are very often used as food dyes and exhibit antioxidant properties.

Blueberries and their anthocyanins
Blueberry anthocyanins

Anthocyanins have been studied based on several biological activities including antioxidant capacity, effect on capillary vessel permeability and fragility, aggregation of blood platelets and effect on collagen (Ref 5 W). The antioxidant capacity of anthocyanins is one of the most important biological properties. Epidemiological and biomedical research suggests that antioxidants in berries, such as blueberries, lingonberry and cranberries, may play a preventive role in the onset of certain diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Anthocyanins and other flavonoids make a substantial contribution to the total antioxidants of the diet (Ref 6 and 7 W). Anthocyanins are said to be a natural antioxidant 20 times more effective than vitamins A and C.


Where are dietary antioxidants found?

During a balanced meal, these four groups of antioxidants are easily found, but the majority of dietary supplements contain synthetic antioxidants. On the other hand, it seems that antioxidants from food sources have a much higher bio activity than those from supplements from synthetic extracts. This is due on the one hand to the fact that foods contain greater heterogeneity of antioxidants and on the other hand, synthetic antioxidants are less well absorbed by the human body.

fruit charter

vegetable charter


The consumption of berries and its effects on health

Nothing better than berries for your health

We already knew the benefits of a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables for the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle. Consuming the amounts recommended in Canada’s new Food Guide reduces the risk of developing several diseases. Quebec’s boreal forest, which has more than 850 species of vascular plants (10),represents an abundant source of compounds useful for the treatment and prevention of various diseases. Several plants in this vast ecosystem contain a high concentration of antioxidant compounds. Wild dwarf blueberries, cranberry bogs and their close cousin lingonberry vitis-idaea are renowned for their high content of antioxidant compounds and, therefore, are often considered references at this level. Numerous studies demonstrate that antioxidants found in boreal berries possess remarkable protective properties(1058).

Berries are wonderful for your health

Several studies have also shown that, for a healthy person, the consumption of fruits rich in antioxidants reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes (Ref 2, 3 W). Although berries are referred to as small only according to mass or volume criteria, studies show that they generally have much higher concentrations than other fruits with compounds of high nutritional value, such as antioxidants, vitamins C and E. Among these small fruits are wild blueberries, lingonberry and cranberries. These berries are of particular interest, from an organoleptic and medicinal point of view especially for their high concentration of antioxidants.


BLUEBERRY (Vaccinium angustifolium)

Wild blueberry extracts (Vaccinium angustifolium) possess antioxidant properties that protect cells from free radical attack(1125). These properties are mainly explained by the presence of powerful antioxidant compounds called anthocyanosides(2634). Several human studies demonstrate that anthocyanosides extracted from blueberries are absorbed by the body and distributed in part in blood serum(3540). These studies also show that blueberry anthocyanosides increase serum antioxidant capacity(3540). The pharmacological properties attributed to blueberry extracts are numerous. Research in rats indicates that blueberry extracts have beneficial effects on the brain(4148). They protect neurons from free radical toxicity. The authors also report that blueberries significantly improve the motor skills of older animals(42). Further work done on an Alzheimer’s model of mice shows that blueberries can prevent the onset of the disease despite the genetic predispositions of these rodents(45). What’s more, other studies conducted by this research group report that blueberries increase the memory and cognitive behavior of rats(4648). On the other hand, blueberry extracts possess anticarcinogenic properties that is, they prevent the cancerization of cells and the appearance of tumors(4953). They also block tumor growth by inhibiting the formation of blood vessels that nourish the tumor (angiogenesis)(5355). Blueberries contain a significant amount of resveratrol(5657). This compound inhibits the aggregation of blood platelets and the oxidation of LDL (low-density lipoproteins)(5859). Resveratrol has protective effects on the cardiovascular system and helps prevent arteriosclerosis(5859). All the studies carried out to date indicate that the antioxidants extracted from blueberries are beneficial for human health. Regular consumption of wild blueberry extract could slow down aging and prevent several serious diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and arteriosclerosis.



Lingonberry is a small woody plant found on the shores of Golf St-Laurent(60). Lingonberry produces red berries that are very rich in antioxidant compounds, mainly phenolic compounds such as flavonols, anthocyanidins, catechines, caffeoyl and ferulic acid(62). The fruits of lingonberry have very interesting pharmacological properties. The antioxidant activity of fruits has been reported by several research groups(6267)suggesting that the juice of this fruit could protect against several serious diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases. Among other things, red berry extract inhibits protein and lipid oxidation in vitro suggesting that the antioxidant compounds present in it may have a protective effect against cardiovascular disease(65). On the other hand, Ho et al. propose that certain antioxidant tannins found in fruits may be effective in treating periodontal disease (gingivitis) responsible for tooth loss(67). These compounds strongly inhibit the growth of Porphyromonas gingivalis and Prevotella intermedia, two bacteria involved in gingivitis(68). Interestingly, recent studies seem to demonstrate that periodontal disease is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease(69). The antibiotic activity of fruit extract has also been highlighted by a Finnish research group(70). These demonstrated that the extracts inhibited the growth of several pathogenic human bacteria and yeast such as Helicobacter pylori, Bacillus cereus, Campylobacter jejuni, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella enterica, Escherichia coli and Candida albicans. The authors suggest that ellagitannin may be partly responsible for antibiotic activity(71). Traditional Swedish medicine reports the use of lingonberry fruits to treat fever, pain and inflammation. Indeed, fruits appear to be effective since Tunon et al.(72)have shown that an extract of red berries inhibits certain processes related to inflammation.


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