Oxidative Damage: The Price of Living

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

One major theme in modern nutrition is the body’s need to cope with the chemical wear and tear of life itself. Breathing is essential to human life because our cells use oxygen to react with sugars and fats and generate the chemical energy that keeps the cellular machinery functioning. Unfortunately, it turns out that energy generation and other essential processes involving oxygen generate chemical by-products called “free radicals,” very unstable chemicals that react with and damage our own complex and delicate chemical machinery. This damage is called oxidative because it usually originates in reactions involving oxygen. It can affect different parts of the cell, and different organs in the body. For example, oxidative damage to a cell’s DNA can cause that cell to multiply uncontrollably and grow into a tumor. Oxidative damage to the cholesterol-carrying particles in our blood can irritate the lining of our arteries, and initiate damage that leads to a heart attack or stroke. The high-energy ultraviolet rays in sunlight create free radicals in the eye that damage proteins in the lens and retina, and cause cataracts, macular degeneration, and blindness.