Well-informed consumers are using fresh vegetables and fruits to help ensure the health and beauty of their skin. Antioxidants play a key role in staving off early aging and certain diseases by combating inflammation and neutralizing free radicals.


The word “beauty” is often defined as “a quality that provides a sense of pleasure to the eye.” Although the use of the term has been applied widely, and to the most inanimate of objects, it is most frequently used in reference to people and, particularly, women.

There is an entire global marketplace dedicated to the creation and maintenance of visible beauty, from cosmetics to hair care products and even cosmetic surgery, all of which are dedicated to enhancing or extending those beautiful qualities that are bestowed upon us at birth. The assumption is that being youthful in appearance is the epitome of beauty.

The most recent market segment dedicated to this cause has been referred to as “cosmeceuticals” or “nutricosmetics.” However, neither of these names has any regulatory recognition or definition, and many marketers have recently resorted to calling this growing category simply “beauty from within.” This essentially comprises products containing functional ingredients that are consumed, either in supplement or food and beverage form, to deliver some kind of visible benefit.

The Skinny on Skin

The primary area of focus for beauty products is our skin, as that is the largest organ of the body. Visually, at least, it is very susceptible to showing the signs of wear and tear that result from aging. Although most of us are painfully aware of what those signs are, the most common include wrinkles, as well as sagging, thinning, drying and discoloration of the skin. 

The mechanisms behind these changes are multi-fold. As we age, skin naturally gets thinner, as the ability to produce new skin cells and to generate the proteins collagen and elastin--which form the tight skin matrix so often associated with youth--diminishes. When skin thins and these proteins break down, wrinkles and sagging result. In addition, thinner skin is less able to hold on to moisture, which can give skin a dry, translucent and papery look.  

To add insult to injury, our skin is bombarded daily with reactive oxygen species (ROS), or free radicals, which are prone to attack healthy cells and trigger unhealthy proliferation which may lead to cancer. Primary sources of free radicals triggering accelerated aging include overexposure to UV rays from the sun (called photoaging), as well as pollutants, such as cigarette smoke and smog. Free radicals also are generated naturally by the most basic cellular functions of respiration and metabolism. 

It would seem that our skin does not stand a chance with all those enemies lurking around every corner, and it is a wonder we do not all look decades older than we really are. What is one to do to gain a youthful skin appearance with the odds so heavily stacked against us? There are really only two basic approaches to good skin health: prevention of damage in the first place, or repairing damage that has occurred.

Thanks to the cosmetic and personal care industries, we are well-equipped to fight the signs of aging on the surface, with creams and cover ups that contain moisturizers and antioxidants. However, the latest thinking is that prevention and repair of skin damage may be most effective when approached from within the body. The theory is that healthy cells with strong defense mechanisms begin with proper nutrition, and additional supplementation can be effective to help repair existing damage.

Many of the same ingredients that have been used topically are now being formulated into consumables, with the promise that they can deliver the same results from the inside out. These ingredients fall into two main categories: antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents and humectants or hydrating agents--all of which can be considered “anti-aging” compounds.

Radical Approach

To understand the rescue effects of antioxidants, we first need to understand the process of oxidation. Oxidation involves the removal of a hydrogen atom from a molecule, leaving a “reactive oxygen species,” or free radical, looking to wreak havoc on other molecules within the body’s cells.(Another way to describe this process is that an electron is removed from the molecule, making it a free radical or an “electron receptor."--Ed.)

There are many different classes of compounds that function as antioxidants to quell these reactions and keep cells intact. Many of these are plant-based materials (i.e., fruits and vegetables), and their function is based on the purpose they provide inside the plant. By quenching free radicals that are generated during growth, they protect the plant’s cells from harm and mutation during their exposure to UV radiation from the sun.

Antioxidants can be classified as lipid-soluble or water-soluble. The solubility factor helps to determine where these antioxidants will function best. For example, vitamin E (and all of its tocopherol derivatives) is a lipid-soluble compound found in skin cell walls and, therefore, will target cell membranes to keep them intact and prevent them from rupturing. Sources of vitamin E include many nuts (such as almonds and peanuts) and seeds and seed oils (such as sunflower). Coenzyme Q10 also is lipid-soluble and can be found in cell walls, as well as inside the mitochondria of cells, protecting this important cellular engine and allowing it to effectively produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the energy source needed to keep cells healthy and regenerating, thus slowing the aging process.

Other fat-soluble antioxidants include carotenoids such as beta carotene, lycopene and astaxanthin. Carotenoids are most prevalent in red, yellow and orange vegetables, such as tomatoes and carrots, and they have been found to protect skin cells from UV damage when ingested. They are not claiming to be substitutes for sunscreen, of course, but an internal protection against free radicals generated when skin is exposed to the sun’s rays.

Water-soluble antioxidants include popular vitamins such as vitamin C and niacinamide.  Vitamin C, found abundantly in citrus fruits, plays a critical role in the generation of collagen, a key protein in skin that keeps our skin taut and smooth. Niacinamide, found in most meats as well as in peanuts and sunflower seeds, has been found to be responsible for the generation of new skin cells. This is critical to anti-aging; as surface skin cells are exfoliated, we need to have an ample supply of fresh new ones underneath to maintain opacity and glow. When production of new cells slows, the thickness of skin thins and appears more translucent. 

A large and important class of water-soluble antioxidants is called polyphenols. These include resveratrol from grape skins and seeds, EGCG from green tea leaves, genistein from soybeans and pycnogenol from pine tree bark, as well as anthocyanins from berries. Polyphenols are potent antioxidants that combat free radical damage from UV exposure and inhibit or slow the growth of skin cell tumors. 

Polyphenols also play an important and unique role in inhibiting the activity of the enzyme elastase, which is responsible for the breakdown of the protein elastin. Elastin is present in the connective tissue of our body, and provides the elasticity that allows skin to stretch and resume its original shape. Reduction in elastin may result in laugh and frown lines, as well as skin sagging. Therefore, maintaining elastin by keeping elastase at bay is one of the best things we can do to maintain the appearance of our skin. 

Glucosinolates are another form of antioxidants commonly found in green vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts. One of the most well-known, sulfur-based antioxidants is called sulforophane, which has been shown to activate phase 2 proteins, part of our internal antioxidant system. 

Many of these compounds also act as anti-inflammatory agents. Inflammation has many causes, but, with regard to skin, two of the major causes are overexposure to the sun (resulting in sunburn) and infection. Products packed with nutritional antioxidants from fruits and vegetables may have a dual benefit of protecting cells from oxidative stress and reducing the inflammation that is generated as a result.

Formulations for the Ages

Water is, of course, the best defense against dehydration and dry skin, and there are many products on the market that are taking water to the next level--by adding many of the nutrients mentioned above as a complementary cocktail for skin. A caution to consider when developing beverage products for antioxidant benefits, however, is the stability of the nutrients added. Many antioxidants are sensitive to heat, light, pH and, of course, oxygen, rendering them less potent after processing than what may be intended.

Other factors to consider are solubility and compatibility in the matrix being used to deliver the raw material so that it can be absorbed and used by the body. Fat-soluble nutrients are best delivered in oil- or fat-based products, or at least in the fat-based portion of a product. As salad dressing targeted for skin care might not have as much marketing muscle as a nutrition bar or beverage, it is probably best to focus on adding the oil-soluble nutrients first, when developing and manufacturing the products. If there is no fat-based component in the formula, perhaps there will be the need to create an emulsion with the water phase and the oil-based nutrients to prevent separation.

It may be easier to formulate with water-soluble nutrients from a compatibility standpoint; however, there are still challenges to keep in mind. Resveratrol, for example, is a very powerful antioxidant for skin, but is only slightly water-soluble (it prefers alcohol), which means it may not be fully absorbed and utilized by the body. Perhaps a whole food source of resveratrol--such as grape skins or a complementary combination of polyphenols--would be more effective in the formulation. Stability is also a challenge, as illustrated by vitamin C, which is very soluble in water but extremely unstable. As such, formulators may need to add considerably more to the formula at the outset in order to ensure a healthy dose delivery at consumption. Alternatively, fortifying antioxidant-rich foods and beverages with extracts from fruits and vegetables can be a unique way to add back some of what may be lost in processing.

The good news in all of this is that nature has provided an abundant source of nutrients that can keep human skin protected against many of the environmental enemies that abound. Unfortunately, statistics show that the vast majority of consumers do not take advantage of the fresh fruits and vegetables that adorn the produce departments of local grocery stores. Here is an opportunity for food and beverage manufacturers to gain their share of the market that has been so well-developed by cosmetic companies to date.

Consumers already know that antioxidants are generally good for them and are prevalent in fruits and vegetables. As skin care products continue to tout antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, fruit acids and grapeseed extract, the connection with these ingredients to skin health is growing. By developing and marketing foods and beverages that leverage the same ingredients, consumers will catch on quickly that beautiful skin goes far deeper than the surface.  NS

On the Web: COSMECEUTICALS

wwww.PreparedFoods.com -- Type “antioxidants” into the search field
www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/54690.php -- Apples good for brain health
www.ific.org/publications/factsheets/antioxidantfs.cfm -- IFIC’s fact sheet on antioxidants