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Friendly Research Squad

Eat right, exercise regularly, die anyway. — Author Unknown

“Two cups of coffee and I’m still groggy.” I brought my fingers to my forehead and kneaded the area around my brows, as much to relieve the tension as to illustrate my fragile state.

“Want some FRS?” Kerry asked, already signaling Mia to fetch some for me.

“What’s that?”

“Oh, it’s great, good for you and gives you energy,” Kerry answered. “Mainly, I drink it because I don’t like water.”

“It kinda tastes like orange juice,” said Mia. She handed me a tall glass of fluorescent liquid, the color and sweet tang of which was reminiscent of the Sunny Delight of my suburban childhood. “Did you want to see the can?” I nodded, and Mia placed it in my hand.

“So, I take it these hexagons on the front are supposed to demonstrate the validity of the science involved in making this… What is this again?”

“It stands for free radical something,” Kerry began. “I think it’s system —”

“Scavenger,” interjected Mia. “But the guys at work call it ‘Fucking Rad Shit.’” Kerry nodded and went on to explain how there are rogue molecules in our bodies called free radicals, potentially cancer-causing cells just roaming around in there, and that the antioxidants in this canned concoction help bind the damage-causing cells together and flush them from our system. Or something like that. I didn’t get all the details, as I was busy catching David’s eye for a synchronized brow-lift and eye-roll.

Skeptical to the core, David and I don’t trust any product description that comes directly from the company trying to sell it. If a package promises the extraordinary, chances are it’s a load of crap. Like those supplement ads that insist, with an obscene amount of exclamation points, that you can eat all you want and still lose weight, if only you pop this pill that prevents the absorption of fat but may lead to embarrassing “accidents.”

The mode de l’année on the Be the Best You front is the claim that eating a barrelful of a particular fruit or berry is akin to diving headfirst into the Fountain of Youth. Earlier that morning, Kerry had offered me acai with my yogurt. “You mean the current miracle food?” I asked. “Didn’t the goji berry hold that title last year?” I didn’t mean to be cheeky, but my hangover from an epicurean day of wine-tasting our way through the Santa Ynez Valley had weakened me, and it would have taken too much energy to conceal my frustration with the pushers of commodities that cater to the upper-middle-class, yoga-practicing, carbon-footprint-conscious, organic-obsessive demographic. Just when I get used to the name of one exotic superfood, some other new “all natural” panacea is already challenging it for the crown.

Acai, the fruit of a palm tree, is supposed to have multitudinous healing benefits, including those mystifying antioxidants that purportedly can make you live longer than Dracula. When the strange word started popping up all around me — on packaging and on the lips of family and friends — I investigated the numbers and discovered that a common grape contains more antioxidants than the foreign and expensive berry. Yes, some doctors swear by it. Sixty years ago, our esteemed followers of Hippocrates touted cigarettes. These days, armed with an awareness of history’s mistakes and a world’s worth of information at my fingertips, there’s no reason for me to take any “expert’s” claim at face value.

Now, as I sat in my friend’s kitchen and sipped the latest craze to sweep the posh clientele of Bristol Farms — a drink that even Lance Armstrong has begun to peddle — I felt compelled to debunk the can’s claims. “You mind if I look this up for us?”

“Not at all,” said Kerry in her lyrical Irish brogue. She and Mia were as curious as I was to find out the real deal. David, however, in his scientific assuredness, made it clear he had no need to find evidence to confirm his conviction that the product was based on pseudoscience. I fetched my laptop from the guest room and set about Googling while David explained the natural filters with which we humans come equipped and assured us that no pill invented by a few lab coats can replace or improve upon a system that evolved over millions of years.

Several websites later, I learned that the beverage’s “secret weapon” is quercetin, which is a flavonoid, which is the kernel of health found in fruits and vegetables that is responsible for fighting the good fight on a molecular level (antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antitumor, anti-all-kinds-of-bad-things, but most famously, antioxidant). Quercetin is the mother of all flavonoids; the FRS people assert you’d have to eat 40 apples to match their single-serving concentration of the stuff.

Sounded good enough, but most of that information had come from nonscientific sources. Finally, I stumbled upon an article written for New Scientist magazine in 2006. After citations from various studies and quotes from biochemists and representatives at the U.S. National Institutes for Health, the article’s author stated, “True, [antioxidants in powder form] knock the wind out of free radicals in a test tube. But once inside the human body, they seem strangely powerless. Not only are they bad at preventing oxidative damage, they can even make things worse. Many scientists are now concluding that, at best, they are a waste of time and money. At worst they could be harmful.”

I read my findings aloud and concluded, “Seems most scientists agree that free radicals are part of life and that antioxidants are good for you, but that they only work in their natural form…something about how the molecules need to be bound to the apple skin or blueberry in order for the body to process them in a beneficial way. So, basically, FRS may contain 40 apples’ worth of quercetin, but eating one apple is 100 times more effective because in this processed form, the antioxidants aren’t antioxidizing. It should stand for faulty…refreshment…uh, wait, flashy r-something sham.” I gave up my attempt to be clever before I embarrassed myself in front of my screenwriter friend. “Tastes pretty good, though,” I said. “And, psychosomatic or not — I know, David, there’s no science to back up the claims, but still — vitamin B gives me energy.”

Mia collected the can and my empty glass. Kerry, who had been pretty quiet while I’d been doing my best Bill Maher impression, nodded and thanked me for shedding some light on her current beverage of choice.

“I can tell you this, my headache’s gone away,” I said. It was nearing lunchtime, and we were getting ready to head to Lazy Acres to stock up on organic goods for a barbecue in Kerry’s yard that overlooked a panoramic view of the mountains, Santa Barbara Harbor, and the ocean. “You know what else I learned from all that searching?” I waited until the faces around me looked sufficiently curious. “There’s, like, a ton of antioxidants in red wine.”

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