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Exotic flavors such as nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, mace, and cloves did much to spice up the bland medieval European diet, but it was the seemingly magical ability to preserve foods for long periods of time, even in warm weather, and the apparent curative properties of many of those spices, that made them so valuable. Columbus was not looking for the West Indies when he made his famous 500-year-old voyages, but the East Indies, where the treasured spices grew in great abundance in the legendary Spice Islands and other "magical" lands on the other side of the globe.

With a value that was often greater than that of gold or silver, spices were the currency that built some of the great empires of the ancient world. Borne by camel caravans, the first spices came overland through the Middle East from India and China. When Arabian spice merchants, jealously guarding the sources of their wealth, blocked overland access to the Far East, European adventurers set out to find ways to sail around them, giving birth to the greatest era in global exploration in human history.

While the values of spices have been known for centuries, the secrets of their wonderful powers are only now becoming apparent. Many spices, it turns out, have important antioxidant properties. Why is this so important? Free radical damage to cells is thought to be a primary factor in aging. Minimize this damage, the theory goes, and you will slow the aging process. Because antioxidants can prevent or slow the devastating effects of the process of oxidation. Oxidation, of course, is the ubiquitous chemical process in which oxygen molecules combine with other molecules to produce a third compound. A common form of oxidation is rust, or oxygen + iron; another is water, the product of oxygen combining with hydrogen. In the body, oxidation of a sugar (glucose) gives cells the energy they must have to function.

Necessary as it is to life, oxidation has its dark side too. When oxygen combines with other molecules, the result is often unstable molecules that contain unpaired electrons. These highly reactive molecules, known as free radicals, are extremely dangerous, because they can cause subatomic insults to the structure of cells, including DNA. Free-radical damage to certain genes in a single cell can impair the ability of that cell, and that of its descendants, to perform normal cancer-fighting tasks as well as other necessary functions. Free-radical damage to cells throughout the body is thought to be a primary factor in aging. Minimize this damage, the theory goes, and you will slow the aging process.

Free radicals by the hordes are released when fats oxidize and go rancid. Herein lay the great benefit of spices. These powerful antioxidants provided a tasty alternative to salting, smoking, and pickling for preserving foods, especially fatty ones.

Free-radical release can be promoted by a variety of external events also, many of which are hard to avoid: heat, ultraviolet light, x-rays, and other forms of radiation, tobacco smoke, alcohol, and certain pollutants. Fortunately, Mother Nature (or whoever is in charge of these things) has provided us with an ample supply of antioxidants with which to fight of free-radical guerrilla molecules before they do us any serious damage. Built into the body are enzymes such as SOD (superoxide dismutase), macro-proteinases, phospholipidases, nucleases, and glycosylases, which all work together to form a sophisticated defense and salvage system against free-radical damage.

Antioxidants are also available from our diet. Certain nutrients, including vitamins C, E, A, and B-6, beta carotene (and other carotenoids), and the amino acids cysteine and taurine, when taken into the body in foods and supplements, provide substantial additional protection. Of these, it is beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, that has received the most attention lately, as evidence of its ability to prevent such killer diseases as cancer and heart disease, as well as cataracts and suppression of the immune system, pours in.


Beta carotene is a nutrient found in the most abundance in yellow and dark green fruit and vegetables-foods like apricots, squash, cantaloupe, broccoli, spinach, and sweet potatoes. It's ability to prevent heart attacks came as a surprise to Dr. Charles Hennekens of Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, who was really interested in studying beta carotene's cancer-fighting capacity. In 1990, nearly halfway through a 10-year study, Hennekens looked specifically at the data from 333 of the 22,000 men in this Physicians' Health Study. These men were selected because they all had evidence of coronary artery disease, including angina, (the chest pain that occurs when the arteries that serve the heart are obstructed) at the start of the study. After 6 years, 27 of the 333 men had suffered heart attacks: 10 in the group taking 50 mg (83,350 IU) of beta carotene every other day, and 17 in the group taking the placebo, representing an almost 40% lower risk for the beta carotene group. Among the men taking both beta carotene and aspirin, there were no heart attacks at all. In fact, Hennekens reported, those men taking the 50-mg dose of beta carotene had about half the number of heart attacks, strokes, cardiac arrests, or operations to open or bypass clogged arteries.1 It seems to be beta carotene's antioxidant capacity-specifically its ability to prevent the oxidation of cholesterol-that explains its protective role in heart disease. Recent evidence has shown that cholesterol is most dangerous after it has been oxidized or damaged, thus releasing free radicals into the bloodstream, where they can damage delicate arteries. These sites of damage attract the fatty deposits that eventually clog the arteries. Free radicals may also oxidize low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol), which makes the macrophages transporting the LDL turn into foam cells that form atherosclerotic plaques.


Cancer has long been a primary focus of beta carotene researchers because of free radicals' well-known ability to promote mutation by damaging genetic material. Dr. Harinder Garewal, from the University of Arizona Cancer Center in Tucson, found that when people with precancerous lesions in their mouth took 30 mg (50,000 IU) of beta carotene supplements each day, their lesions shrunk and, in some cases, disappeared altogether. Dr. Garewal told The New York Times, "My intuitive feeling is that if you used [beta carotene supplements] in a population, you could perhaps decrease cancer."2 Other studies have shown the risk of other cancers, especially lung cancer, to be linked to the amount of beta carotene in the diet. "The bottom line is that in general there is an antitumor effect with agents like beta carotene," Dr. Joel Schwartz, a Harvard School of Dental Medicine researcher, told the Times.3


The most recent excitement concerning beta carotene and other antioxidants is the possibility that their use may prevent cataracts, the clouding of the lens in the eye. In the results of a survey of 1,380 people published earlier this year in The Archives of Ophthalmology, Dr. Christina Leske, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, reported that people who get large amounts of antioxidant nutrients from food and supplements have a significantly smaller chance of going blind from cataracts.4 "The general message will be that one can diminish the risk of developing cataracts by the use of relatively elevated levels of some of the antioxidant nutrients," said Dr. Allen Taylor, who is head of nutrition and vision research at Tufts University's Nutrition Research Center.5


Whenever the topic of antioxidant nutrients comes up, one question is invariably asked: Normal diet or supplements? Normal diet can be an excellent source of beta carotene, provided you have an excellent diet full of fresh vegetables. Unfortunately the average normal American diet contains less than 2 mg per day of beta carotene. To get the 50 mg used in Hennekens's heart study, you would have to eat nearly 4 cups of cooked carrots, 1 1/2 cups of pumpkin, 1 1/2 cups of sweet potatoes, or about 5 cups of cooked collard greens. Given these choices, many people would quickly opt for supplements.

Another problem with natural sources of beta carotene is bioavailability. Notes research scientist formulator Durk Pearson, "If you feed a human being a pound of broccoli a day-which is an awful lot of broccoli-there's no measurable increase in their serum beta carotene levels. It all goes down the toilet; so little is absorbed, it's too small to measure."

The problem seems to lie in the amount of fat in the GI tract at the time you're eating the broccoli, or carrots, or other natural source of the nutrient. Natural beta carotene is fat soluble, which means that, for maximum absorption, it needs to be dissolved in fat. "It's sort of ironic," said Pearson, "but the person who's dedicated to health, who's on very low fat diet and eats some carrots for their healthful effects, is actually not getting the full health benefit from the carrots other than the fiber." He points out that you can produce much higher levels of beta carotene in your body by using a water soluble beta carotene supplement. Because it's water soluble, the bioavailability is high without the need for fat.

The First Age of Antioxidants began with the global explorations half a millennium ago. The spice explorers and traders brought back from the Far East spices that helped change the way people lived, and may have helped them live longer as well. Not only did antioxidant spices help preserve food, they formed the foundation of pharmaceutical science for centuries.

Where the First Age opened the globe to unprecedented exploration, the Second Age promises something very different: unprecedented health and longevity. With the recognition of the role of oxygen free radicals in disease and aging, and the new availability of high-potency antioxidants like beta carotene in high-bioavailability formulations, we are now entering the Second Age of Antioxidants. Where the First Age opened the globe to unprecedented exploration, the Second Age promises something very different: unprecedented health and longevity.


  1. Ridker PM, Manson JE, Gaziano JM, Buring JE, Hennekens CH. Low-dose aspirin therapy for chronic stable angina. A randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Am Intern Med 1991;114:835-9.
  2. Type of vitamin A found to cut heart disease. The New York Times. Nov 14, 1990.
  3. Webb D. A study of the effects of beta carotene; first cancer, now heart disease. The New York Times. Nov 28, 1990:C3.
  4. Leske MC, Chylack LT Jr, Wu SY. The lens opacities case-control study. Risk factors for cataract. Arch Ophthalmol 1991;109:244-51
  5. Daily vitamins may reduce risk of cataracts. The New York Times Feb20,1991.

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