Antioxidants are everywhere. They’ve popped up in cereals, granola bars, juices, teas, supplementsand even water! Even though the word “antioxidant” may be seen on different food items, its impact is not quite so obvious. Antioxidants work at the subatomic level by combatting free radicals, which are chemicals that can damage cells, eventually leading to diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, etc. There’s much more science to antioxidants than this simple description implies, which is why we need to go deep inside the atom to truly explore how antioxidants function.

We must recall what we once learned in science class to understand what free radicals do and why they can be damaging. First, we’ll take a look at atoms. Atoms are comprised of three parts: the proton, neutron, and electron. Protons and neutrons make up the nucleus at the center of an atom, while electrons orbit the nucleus. When an atom or molecule loses one of those orbiting electrons, that process is called “oxidation” and results in free radicals. These free radicals can harm the body by acting as scavengers looking to take an electron from somewhere else. By doing so, they can cause changes within our cells that eventually cause disease.

There are many different ways these free radicals cause cell damage. In a 2011 article for the Atlantic, Registered Dietitian and Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist Beth Fontenot writes, “Free radicals can trap a low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in an artery wall and begin the formation of plaque; they can damage DNA; or they can change the course of what enters and leaves a cell.”

This is where antioxidants come in. As their name suggests, antioxidants stop the process of oxidation. An antioxidant has an extra electron, which a free radical takes to pair with one of its unpaired electrons. The result is a stable molecule and an end to the scavenging process. By donating an electron, antioxidants neutralize free radicals and prevent them from contributing to the oxidative stress that can eventually lead to health issues.

The term “antioxidant” encompasses many different substances. Anything that acts as an electron donor is considered an antioxidant, but the two main types are dietary and endogenous antioxidants. Our bodies produce endogenous antioxidants. Dietary antioxidants–as the name suggests–come from what we eat. Most foods or supplements that claim to be full of antioxidants are full of the latter category, dietary antioxidants. Beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, manganese, selenium, and zinc are some of the most commonly known types, but there are many, many more.

Antioxidants have become extremely popular in recent years, and for a good reason. Many studies have demonstrated their health benefits and ability to prevent or reduce the risk of dietary disease. Here is a brief overview of the power of specific antioxidants:

If you want to add more antioxidants to your diet, the best place to start is by consuming more fruits and vegetables. While antioxidant supplements may seem like an obvious way to decrease your body’s oxidative stress, they are not as effective as the antioxidants found in food. In fact, consuming some antioxidant supplements may even be harmful. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), some studies have indicated that a smoker’s lung cancer risk increases after taking high-dose beta-carotene supplements. The Center also notes that taking high-dose vitamin E supplements increases a person’s risk of brain bleeding and prostate cancer. Lastly, the NCCIH warns that antioxidant supplements can interact with certain medications, such as blood thinners. Because of this, it is critically important that you speak with your doctor first if you are considering taking an antioxidant supplement.

Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables can help ensure that you get antioxidants of all types, as certain fruits and vegetables are higher in one type of antioxidant than others. For example, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, consuming apples, tea, and berries is a good way to eat more phenolic compounds, while almonds, avocados, and sunflower seeds are higher in vitamin E.

Scientists are continuing to study whether other compounds in fruits and vegetables contribute to the effectiveness of antioxidants. If so, this may help explain why many antioxidant supplements have shown few to no health benefits. Additional research is necessary to determine exactly how antioxidants can help prevent the onset of certain diseases and whether they can be helpful in supplement form. Regardless, opting for a plant-based diet is widely recognized to be beneficial to your health. Make sure to consume a rich variety of fruits and vegetables to increase your intake of beneficial antioxidants.

Alison DeGuide is the media manager at IFANCA, as well as the editor of Halal Consumer Magazine. She is interested in food, nutrition, and sustainability, especially how to prevent food waste.