They weren’t discovered until the early 1980s, they’re thought to play a part in causing some 60 diseases and are capable of wreaking havoc on healthy cells.
Free radicals are unstable molecules, a product of oxidation and in a sense the rust of the body. In stable molecules, electrons normally associate in pairs, providing a balance. Everyday functions such as simply breathing, digesting food or moving about can remove one electron from a molecule, creating a free radical. This now unstable molecule tries to regain an electron by snatching one from another molecule. When it succeeds, another free radical is created and a chain reaction is set up in which the DNA, the body’s vital genetic information, may be damaged.
When the damaged DNA divides to reproduce, it can produce cancer or other disease-causing cells. As well as bodily functions, cigarette smoke, pollution, ultraviolet light and stress can create free radicals but so can cooking – in particular meat. Researchers in the US cooked beef burgers, bacon and soya-based burgers and found that both the beef burgers and bacon produced significant amounts of the most damaging free radicals while the soya burger produced none (116).
The remedy for free radicals are molecules called antioxidants.