Every day we breathe in a toxic gas — oxygen — to stay alive. Unless managed tightly in the body, oxygen would cause serious damage. Most of what a person consumes is converted into harmless water and carbon dioxide to create energy via respiration. The rest ends up as free radicals, molecules that have an unbalanced charge. They react quickly with protein, fat, carbohydrates or DNA, which causes damage. A group of molecules called antioxidants are the first line of defense against that damage.

The healthy body maintains a balance between free radicals and antioxidant production. However, environmental factors like air pollution, smoking, stress or high-intensity exercise can increase free radicals in the body. Without sufficient antioxidants to manage them, excess free radicals cause damage that can eventually manifest as disease.

One easy way to improve the balance between free radicals and antioxidants is by increasing the latter in foods. The baking industry has an opportunity to develop products as vehicles for additional antioxidants.

Many common bakery ingredients naturally contain high levels of antioxidants. Wheat bran has high levels, while whole wheat flour and whole grains contain beneficial levels. Yeast contains glutathione, an excellent antioxidant that also is produced in our bodies. Cocoa and cinnamon are two of the most potent antioxidants available, and beta carotene and lutein are easy to incorporate in most bakery products with no impact on flavor or texture while imparting a pleasant yellow/orange color to the crumb. Fruits, especially raisins, dates, blueberries and acai berries, can boost antioxidant content and add flavor, texture and eye appeal.

Nuts, a popular inclusion in baked foods, also contain significant levels of antioxidants.

Despite the bad press that comes with their chemical-sounding names, synthetic antioxidants like BHA, BHT and TBHQ have been shown to be effective in the body. Lastly, there are essential oils and extracts such as rosemary oil, which could be used as a natural way to lengthen shelf life.

Quantifying and communicating the level of antioxidants present in a food product is more difficult now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture no longer promotes using the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity value. Antioxidants cannot be measured in milligrams like other ingredients but rather on the amount of lipid oxidation that the material prevents compared with a standard like vitamin E tocopherols.

Many consumers are aware of the value antioxidants bring to their diet to help avoid developing progressive diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease or slowing or prevent chronic inflammation, Alzheimer’s Disease and cancer, according to “The Antioxidant Food Table,” published by Carlsen et. al in the Nutrition Journal 2010, 9(3).

These are powerful reasons to add antioxidants to our bakery products and help consumers get the levels they need every day.