A clip from The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell
‘..If you admire how food is presented, it’s hard to beat a plate of fruits and vegetables. The reds, greens, yellows purples and oranges of plant foods are tempting and very healthy. This has been often noted.
The colors of fruits and vegetables are derived from a variety of chemicals called antioxidants, almost exclusively found in plants. They are only present in animal-based foods to the extent that animals eat them and store a small amount in their own tissues.
Living plants take the energy of the sun and transform it into life through the process of photosynthesis. The sun’s energy is first turned into simple sugars and then into more complex carbohydrates, fats and proteins. This complex process amounts to some pretty high-powered activity within the plant, driven by exchange of electrons, a bit like a nuclear reactor. The electrons zooming around in the plant that are changing sunlight into chemical energy must be managed very carefully. If they stray from their rightful places in the process, they may create free radicals which can wreak havoc in the plant. It would be like the core of a nuclear reactor leaking radioactive materials.
So how does the plant manage this? It puts up a shield made up of antioxidants that intercept and scavenge electrons. Antioxidants are usually colored because the same chemical property that sponges up excess electrons also creates visible colors.
What makes this remarkable process relevant for us animals, however, is that we produce low levels of free radicals throughout life. Simply being exposed to the sun, industrial pollutants and to improperly balanced nutrient intake creates unwanted free radical damage, like old age, cataracts, hardening of the arteries, cancer, emphysema, arthritis and many other ailments as age/time progresses.
Here’s the kicker, we do not naturally build shields to protect ourselves. As we are not plants we do not carry out photosynthesis & do not produce any of our own antioxidants. Fortunately the antioxidants in plants work in our bodies the same way they work in plants. It is a wonderful harmony.
We assessed antioxidant status by recording the intakes of Vitamin C and betacarotene and measuring the blood levels of vitamin C, vitamin E and carotenoids. Among these antioxidant biomarkers, vitamin C provided the most impressive evidence. Low Vitamin C was prominently associated with higher risk for esophageal cancer, leukemia and cancers of the nasopharynx, breast, stomach, liver, rectum, colon and lung.
Can we say that a pill containing Vitamin C and beta-carotene or a fiber supplement create these health effects? No. The triumph of health lies not in the individual nutrients, but in the whole foods. In a bowl of spinach salad they work in concert within our bodies. The message could not be simpler, eat as many whole fruits, vegetables and whole grains as you can.
We have been making this point about the health value of whole plant-based foods ever since vitamin supplements were introduced. And we have watched in dismay how the industry and media convinced so many people that these products represent the same good effects as do whole, plant-based foods.
As we shall see in later chapters the promised benefits are highly questionable. The take home message”: if you want vitamin C or beta-carotene don’t reach for a pill bottle, reach for a fruit or leafy green vegetable…’