For years, proponents of antioxidant supplements have suggested taking the supplements with food. Why? Because they come that way in nature — as part of food — so it makes commonsense and because, anecdotally, antioxidants just seem to work better when taken with meals. Now we may just know why. They protect the body, not just in the bloodstream, but also in the stomach.
The new information comes out of a study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which set out to discover if antioxidants would counterract some of the negative effects of eating fatty foods if taken at the right moment. The study focused on the effects of drinking wine together with a meat-based meal, and found that if you consume wine and meat together, the antioxidants in the wine go right to work blocking the formation of toxins that would normally be released in the digestive process. But, the wine has to hit the digestive system at the same time the meat does or the magic doesn’t happen.
When the digestive system breaks down high-fat foods such as meat, it releases various oxidizing toxic substances as byproducts, and they eventually find their way into the system. One of those toxins, malondialdehyde, has been linked to a host of diseases including arteriosclerosis, cancer, and diabetes. Another, hydroperoxide is mutagenic and carcinogenic.
Lead researcher, Dr. Joseph Kanner, chose to use red wine as the antioxidant source because red wine contains high levels of polyphenols. Polyphenols are powerful antioxidant complexes that destroy cell-damaging free radicals, and that might reduce the incidence of cancer and cardiovascular disease. According to an article in the Economist, “[Dr. Kanner] hypothesised that if the polyphenols arrive in the stomach at the moment when the fats are releasing malondialdehyde and its kin, then this might stop these toxic materials from getting any farther into the body.”
And so, a group of lucky rats got fed turkey meat mixed with wine (vintage not specified), while a less lucky control group received just the turkey. In the end, of course, luck just plain ran out for all the rats as the researchers killed and autopsied them (hopefully, the Merlot they had earlier eased the pain). And voila! Just as Dr. Kanner had hoped, the oenophillac rats had fewer harmful free radicals in their digestive tracts.
The researchers say the stomach acts as a “bioreactor” that facilitates the beneficial effects of the polyphenols. The polyphenols both block the formation of toxic byproducts and also prevent the toxins from being absorbed into the bloodstream. The key is that the antioxidants need to be present when the food enters the digestive cycle.
Incidentally, you’re not restricted to wine; a host of other foods contain polyphenols. Fruits and vegetables, and particularly the skins of certain fruits, contain them in abundance. So do nuts, olive oil, tea, and chocolate — and if you don’t like wine but still want to make a toast, so does beer. Apparently, though, the mix of polyphenols in wine is particularly beneficial.
Of course, you can also just take a good full-spectrum antioxidant supplement, but now you know that it’s essential to take it with your meals to maximize the benefit.