No One Really Knows What Antioxidants Are, Study Says

All this time, the healthy-eating world has been stuffing its face with blueberries, tea, coffee, tomatoes, and a├žai berries, extolling the powers of antioxidants against things like cancer and vision loss. And all this time, it turns out, they've had no clue what antioxidants actually are.

A survey from Wakefield research found that 92 percent of adult responders couldn't accurately describe what an antioxidant is, while 91 percent couldn't recognize foods that were rich in the molecules.

"Research links over 100 diseases to a high free radical and low antioxidant count, yet people don't know they can take a proactive stance against this risk," author of the book Body Confidence Mark Macdonald told DrugStore News. Of course, most people have had it imprinted in their brains that antioxidants are, in some way, "good for you." According to the survey, 75 percent of responders said they actively try to eat foods big in antioxidants. Meanwhile, market research has estimated that the sale of products with antioxidant claims reached $64.8 billion in 2011; research predicts the market will reach $86 billion in 2016.

So what exactly are antioxidants? They're technically a group of molecules that give electrons (remember biology?) to "free radicals," or chemical byproducts from turning food into energy. Free radicals can damage cells as they steal electrons from other vital molecules in your system. Harvard notes that these free radicals can alter molecule's structure or function, changing instructions in a strand of DNA or cause cholesterol molecules to get trapped in an artery wall.

When antioxidants give these electrons to free radicals, they essentially neutralize the molecules; thus past research has linked a diet high in antioxidants to a decrease in chronic diseases like cancer or vision loss.

Some of that research, however, has come under criticism; new research has shown that taking vitamin E and other antioxidant supplements do not decrease the risk of heart disease of cancer. Most recently, a new study debunked the myth that women could increase their chance of conceiving. Nevertheless, an 18-year follow-up did find that taking beta-carotene is associated with "a modest reduction in the rate of cognitive decline." So healthy eaters still looking to up their antioxidant count? Cranberries, peppers, and the aforementioned blueberries, tea, and tomatoes are all noted to be natural sources of antioxidants.