Antioxidants: Definition & Explanations

Antioxidationsmittel: Definition & Erklärungen

Have you heard that antioxidants aren't just for preserving food? Do you keep reading about the fact that these small substances can be used successfully for various clinical pictures, but are also full of dangers? Understandably, this quickly leads to great uncertainty and the desire to be clarified in detail.

In this post about antioxidants, we want to give you all the information you need about the different antioxidants. Among other things, you will learn something about the enormously important tasks that these substances take on in our body. We will also show you why you should probably refrain from supplementing with antioxidants.

the essentials in brief

  • Antioxidants are of elementary importance for the body, as they neutralize free radicals, which are aggressive products of metabolism, and thus prevent them from damaging the organism.
  • Antioxidants can be divided into two different types. Both the natural and the synthetically produced substances are used as preservatives and can thus make both food and medicines durable over a longer period of time.
  • Dietary antioxidant supplements are generally discouraged as they are suspected of increasing both cancer and mortality risk.

Glossary entry: The term antioxidant explained in detail

You will find all-encompassing information on the subject of antioxidants in the following sections. We have compiled the most important and most frequently asked questions here and, of course, answered them in detail for you.

What is an antioxidant?

An antioxidant is a chemical compound that either slows down or completely prevents the process of oxidation of certain substances, i.e. the reaction of these with air.

Woman sits at a dressing table and holds a make-up cassette with a mirror

Antioxidants are even being used more and more in cosmetics. As radical scavengers, they should protect and strengthen the skin particularly well. (Image source: Lubov Lisitsa / Pixabay)

Depending on the type of antioxidant involved, different mechanisms of action can be described:

  • Radical scavengers: During the metabolic processes in our body, highly reactive and aggressive products are constantly being produced, which, among other things, attack important molecules in our DNA and proteins. As radical scavengers, certain antioxidants are able to intercept these so-called free radicals and render them harmless in order to balance out the oxidative stress.
  • Reducing Agents: Some antioxidants can be used as reducing agents. As such, by donating electrons, they are themselves oxidized and thus protect other substances from reacting with the oxygen.

Antioxidants are probably more familiar to most people for their function as reducing agents that are added to various types of products to extend their shelf life.

The main focus here is on preserving food. But other consumer goods and medicines also benefit from the protective effect of antioxidants. (1)

What are the different types of antioxidants?

There is a fundamental difference between natural and artificial antioxidants. The former are naturally found in certain foods. The artificial antioxidants, on the other hand, are obtained by means of synthetic production and can be added to food.

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Natural antioxidants Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E, polyphenolic antioxidants, carotenoids
Synthetic antioxidants Gallates, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)

However, among the natural antioxidants there are some that cannot be synthesized to meet demand. However, since the human body is dependent on the antioxidant effect of these substances, the organism must be supplied with vitamin C, vitamin E and provitamin A through various foods.

Which foods contain antioxidants?

Due to the insufficient facts, it has not been possible to provide precise information about the daily intake of individual antioxidants. Due to its function as a radical scavenger and reducing agent, however, it is extremely important to supply the body with many antioxidant substances.

A healthy diet based on foods containing antioxidants is said to be highly effective in preventing cardiovascular disease. (2) Not infrequently, there is also talk of a protective effect against certain types of cancer. However, both theses are still considered extremely controversial. (3)

seasoned open avocado alongside avocado and lemon slices

As an antioxidant, vitamin C ensures that food lasts longer. For example, if you drizzle lemon juice over the flesh of an avocado, it doesn't turn brown as quickly and stays fresh for longer. (Image Source: Steve Buissinne / Pixabay)

The fact is, however, that without counteracting antioxidants, oxidative stress can greatly promote the development of diseases and the progression of the aging process. (4) This fact clearly underlines the relevance of a healthy and antioxidant diet.

The table below shows which foods are particularly rich in natural antioxidants:

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vitamin C Rosehip, currant, pepper, strawberry, lemon, orange, pineapple, sauerkraut, cabbage
vitamin E Peanut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Olive Oil, Margarine, Almonds, Hazelnuts
Polyphenolic antioxidants Tea, Coffee, Soy, Olive Oil, Cocoa, Cinnamon, Oregano, Red Wine, Pomegranate
carotenoids Carrots, apricots, pumpkin, spinach, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peas, mango, pears, eggs

Unlike natural antioxidants, artificial ones must be explicitly approved. However, the approval of synthetically produced additives is partially restricted, which ultimately means that only very specific foods may be processed with artificial antioxidants.

If the antioxidants serve to preserve the food, a labeling obligation applies to both natural and synthetically produced substances. In this case, the exact name or an E number provided for this purpose can be found on the product packaging.

What are the dangers of antioxidants?

Despite their proven relevance for a healthy organism, antioxidants are repeatedly criticized for being able to make you ill. For this reason, we did some more research and looked at which dangers and risks you should really keep in mind when taking antioxidants under certain circumstances.


During pregnancy, the mother should pay even more attention to a nutritious and vitamin-rich diet. Since the baby is supplied with important antioxidants via the placenta during this time, malnutrition and the resulting undersupply could endanger the child's antioxidant protection system.

In this case, the risk of excessive proliferation of free radicals would increase, which could result in various diseases. For this reason, it may well prove useful to regularly monitor the activity of antioxidants in the pregnant woman's body in order to be able to intervene if necessary.

However, mothers-to-be do not usually have to worry about the supposedly damaging effect of antioxidants. Due to strict legal requirements, only certain antioxidants that do not pose a serious risk to health may be approved in the food industry.


Even people who are extremely sensitive to certain substances and have various allergies are often concerned with the question of whether antioxidants can prove to be problematic for them.

In fact, evidence has already been found that indicates that the synthetically produced gallates as additives in food or cosmetic products can lead to mild to severe reactions in the body. (5)

In contrast, various researchers presented study results according to which antioxidants should even be able to greatly reduce the risk of allergies. A lack of antioxidant substances is more likely to cause an increase in allergy tendencies. (6)

If you are already familiar with other allergies, you should also exercise caution here and possibly check with a doctor in advance whether an over-sensitive reaction to certain antioxidants is to be expected.

Basically, however, the occurrence of such forms of allergy is extremely rare and should not cause any major headaches. Normally, all antioxidants that are synthetically manufactured and approved in Germany do not show any major risk potential in terms of an allergic reaction.


As already mentioned, antioxidants are essential for balancing oxidative stress. However, the formation of free radicals is actually not only associated with negative effects. As long as these are not produced in excessive quantities and can thus damage the organism in the long term, they certainly fulfill important functions in the body.

Therefore, it is dangerous to neutralize too many of the free radicals by consuming too many antioxidants. This would have significant consequences for our defenses, since the immune system uses the aggressiveness of free radicals to fight viruses, bacteria and the like more effectively.

Normal consumption of various foods does not normally lead to an excessive intake of antioxidants.

However, an excessive amount of antioxidants can quickly be absorbed through certain supplements and lead to undesirable effects. In general, it is not advisable to take antioxidants in the diet.

The corresponding supplements are suspected of promoting the development of cancer types as well as having a negative influence on the course of the disease and increasing the general risk of death. (7)

What should be considered with regard to antioxidants in a vegetarian or vegan diet?

Due to the natural and above all numerous occurrence of antioxidants in fresh fruit and vegetables, vegetarians and vegans in particular are well protected from too many free radicals. Unfortunately, finished products do not always make it easy to tell whether they contain substances of animal origin or not.

Especially with the already mentioned E numbers, which are used to identify antioxidants in food, the question often remains unanswered as to whether the product in question is suitable for vegetarian or vegan nutrition.

So if you don't want to or can't buy fresh food all the time and also like to use ready-made products, you should find out in detail in advance which E numbers guarantee animal-free enjoyment. Among other things, the following labels are suspected of indicating animal origin:

  • E120
  • E270
  • E304
  • E322
  • E325

Comprehensive information regarding vegetarian or vegan suitability can be obtained from the consumer advice center, for example. But even online, very extensive lists of unsuitable antioxidants for vegetarians and vegans are easy to find.


In summary, one thing quickly becomes clear. Without antioxidants, the overall health of our body could not be assured. Every day our organism fights against free radicals that can attack and damage healthy cells. Environmental influences such as UV radiation, cigarette smoke and the like increase the oxidative stress caused by these aggressive metabolites.

For this reason, the appeal is clear to become aware of the relevance of antioxidants for our body. With a healthy and balanced diet, which is primarily based on the consumption of numerous fruits and vegetables, but also uses a selection of different vegetable oils and includes moderate consumption of red wine and coffee, we create the conditions for a healthy and strong organism .

Under no circumstances should the intake of supplements be exaggerated for fear of insufficient intake. Normally, the mere consumption of the foods mentioned is enough to defy free radicals in our body. Relying on dietary antioxidant supplements is more likely to jeopardize your health than ultimately support it.


  1. JANECKE H, SENFT G. Studies on the suitability of antioxidants for the stabilization of pharmaceutical raw materials. III. Wool grease and wool fatty alcohols [Experiments on the suitability of antioxidants as stabilizing agents for pharmaceutical drugs. III. Woolfat & woolfat alcohol]. Arch Pharm Ber Dtsch Pharm Ges. 1957;290/62(10):472-478. doi:10.1002/ardp.19572901007
  2. Gey KF, Stähelin HB, Ballmer PE. Essential antioxidants in cardiovascular diseases--lessons for Europe. thermal switch 1994;51(7):475-482.
  3. Böhm H, Boeing H, Hempel J, Raab B, Kroke A. Flavonols, flavone and anthocyanins as natural antioxidants of food and their possible role in the prevention of chronic diseases]. Z Nutrition Science 1998;37(2):147-163. doi:10.1007/pl00007376
  4. Eckers A, Altschmied J, Haendeler J. Oxidative stress in endothelial cells and in diabetes type 2. Z Gerontol Geriatr. 2012;45(2):90-94. doi:10.1007/s00391-011-0277-z
  5. Holcomb ZE, Van Noord MG, Atwater AR. Gallate Contact Dermatitis: Product Update and Systematic Review. Dermatitis. 2017;28(2):115-127. doi:10.1097/DER.0000000000000263
  6. Ding S, Jiang H, Fang J. Regulation of Immune Function by Polyphenols. J Immunol Res. 2018;2018:1264074. Published 2018 Apr 12. doi:10.1155/2018/1264074
  7. Piroth MD, Mücke R, Micke O. Antioxidants and selenium should not be lumped together into one category-evaluation of supplementation during chemotherapy or radiotherapy for breast cancer]. Radiant ether oncol. 2019;195(9):857-860. doi:10.1007/s00066-019-01486-x
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