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Lab Notebook: Antioxidants for plants and for people!

Posted by: Andrea Melnychenko
March 23, 2016

One piece of botanical information that has managed to make its way into mainstream media is the importance of eating plant-based antioxidants. We’re all told regularly that we need antioxidants—for health, youth, beauty, rejuvenation—but most people don’t have a firm grasp on what antioxidants are actually doing for our bodies. They just know that blueberries have them and that more antioxidants are generally a good thing.

I like explaining the science behind antioxidants to my friends and colleagues from the plant’s point of view first (plant physiology talk is a crowd-pleaser at dinner parties).

When light hits a leaf, one of four reactions can occur and photosynthesis is the obvious winner. I get it—if I could make my own food, I would be thrilled. A good safety net, however, is Fluorescence, wherein photons of red light are ejected by chlorophyll molecules, dissipating energy and narrowly avoiding the next two outcomes: heat generation (which is not that great but not the worst) and the formation of free radicals (which is definitely the worst). Free radicals are unstable molecules that need to stabilize, and as they look for another molecule to pair with, or somewhere to toss their unpaired electrons, they can leave a path of destruction in their wake. For a leaf, this can mean damage to proteins, cells, and everything the leaf has worked so hard to make. Lucky for leaves, people, and everything else with living tissue, antioxidants exist.

Antioxidants are large molecules that capture and quench excited free radicals. It’s like a Chihuahua caught in a beanbag chair—there’s just nowhere for them to go. Plants have a lot of antioxidants hidden in places you would least expect them: roots (see carrots), berries, and leaves.

When people eat antioxidants, they protect their hard-earned proteins and sensitive tissues, just like the plants that originally created them.

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Andrea Melnychenko

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