Can zinc plus chocolate, coffee, or tea make you healthier and slow down ageing?
This almost sounds too good to be true, but scientists from Germany and the United States have discovered that zinc combined with a compound found in cocoa beans, coffee beans, tea leaves, and grapes is able to activate a particular molecule that protects against oxidative stress. In ageing, oxidative stress holds a key role. It is caused by an imbalance between harmful free radicals and protective antioxidants. Although anti-ageing is normally conceived as something that can delay the exterior signs of ageing, it is really more important to slow down internal ageing such as atherosclerosis, fatigue, dementia, and early death in worst case. Many people lack zinc, and deficiencies of this nutrient are widespread and typically observed among vegetarians, vegans, older people, and pregnant and breastfeeding women. What the scientists are telling us now is that it is good for us to enjoy a little dark chocolate, coffee or tea in order to benefit even more from the zinc we get.
Ageing and low life expectancy are partly a result of oxidative stress caused by free radicals, which are aggressive molecules with an unpaired electron. In their attempt to replace the missing electron, they snatch an electron from another molecule, thereby turning that molecule into a free radical. This sets off a chain reaction in the cells. The lipids in the cell membrane and cellular DNA and other proteins are particularly vulnerable to free radical attacks. In a sense, you can compare free radical activity with rust attacking a car or the gradual browning of the white apple meat, once you have sliced the apple or taken a bite of it.
Everyone is exposed to free radicals. Our only source of protection is antioxidants such as zinc, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and a variety of plant compounds with antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are able to neutralize the free radicals by donating an electron to stabilize them. In addition, certain antioxidants have different ways of protecting cells and tissues. That is why it is essential to eat a varied diet, so you get as many different antioxidants as possible.
New mineral complex fights super oxide and oxidative stress
A team of scientists from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen (FAU) in Germany and researchers from the United States have found that zinc has the potential to protect against a particularly harmful kind of free radials called superoxides, if the nutrient is ingested in combination with a compound found in foods such as chocolate, coffee, tea, and wine.
This compound is a so-called hydroquinone that is found in polyphenols in plants, and it is these polyphenols that give plants their characteristic smell and taste. Zinc, apparently, is able to activate these hydroquinones and form a natural source of protection against superoxides.
Superoxides are waste products of our cellular oxygen metabolism, and the free radicals are believed to have a key role in the ageing process and in a host of diseases such as atherosclerosis, inflammation, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.
Hydroquinone alone is not able to break down superoxides, but if it is combined with zinc it forms a mineral complex that emulates the essential antioxidant called SOD (superoxide dismutase). That way, the mineral complex is able to counteract oxidative stress and its harmful impact on health.
New medicine or diet inspiration
The German and American scientists imagine that this new understanding of the mineral complex may lead to the development of new drugs or nutritional supplements to prevent oxidative stress without side effects. It may also be an idea to add zinc to foods that contain hydroquinone naturally in order to improve public health. The researchers speculate that zinc may be added to chocolate, coffee, and tea in the future. Although wine also contains hydroquinone, the positive effects of the combination with zinc would be counteracted by the alcohol.
Their findings are published in the science journal Nature Chemistry.
It is important, no matter what, to get enough zinc from the diet. Fish, shellfish, meat, dairy products, nuts, kernels, and beans are good sources. Zinc from animal sources has better absorption than zinc from plant sources. The study suggests that one can drink tea with a meal, like they do in China, or perhaps enjoy a cup of coffee, a piece of dark chocolate or some grapes after the meal in order to benefit the most from the antioxidant effect.
Zinc is involved in around 1,000 different enzyme processes that are of importance to our general health. Be aware of the many factors that can cause a zinc deficiency.
Why are zinc deficiencies so common?
Zinc deficiency can be a result of a poor diet, lack of animal protein, large intake of calcium, alcohol overuse, celiac disease (gluten intolerance), diarrhea, diuretics, birth control pills, prolonged use of antibiotics, and copper poisoning. The widespread deficiency among older people is a result of impaired nutrient uptake (age-related). Even if an older person gets plenty of zinc from the diet, the impaired uptake may actually cause a lack of zinc in the cells. Also, many older people use prescription medicine, which can make the problem worse and accelerate the ageing process caused by oxidative stress.
RI and upper safe limit
The RI (reference intake) level for zinc is 10 mg. According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the upper safe limit for adults including pregnant women is 25 mg per day. It is not dangerous to get a single large dose of zinc from e.g. eating oysters or to use high-dosed supplements for a brief period.
Choose organic zinc supplements, which the body can absorb and utilize
It is naturally best to get all the zinc you need from assimilable dietary sources. If you decide to take a zinc supplement, you should make a note of the fact that there are inorganic forms such as zinc sulfate and zinc oxide, which the body can not absorb all that easily. In contrast, organic zinc forms like zinc gluconate and zinc acetate have good absorption. Therefore, make sure to study the label carefully.
Meghan B Ward et al. Superoxide dismutase activity enabled by redox-active ligand rather than metal. Nature Chemistry. 2018
University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. Can chocolate, tea, coffee and zinc help make you more healthy? ScienceDaily 2018
Oregon State University. Zinc Deficiencies A Global Concern 2009
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