Antioxidants are protective of disease because they inhibit free radical chain reactions, and this reduces oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is associated with many Western lifestyle diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and obesity. Oxidative stress may initiate disease because the free radicals generated during oxidative stress overwhelm the natural antioxidant defences of tissues and this causes tissue damage, cellular destruction and DNA mutations. Plants synthesise antioxidants for the same reason as animals, as this protects them from environmental stress that can initiate free radical formation. When we eat plants we consume these antioxidants, many of which are biologically active and contribute towards protection of our own tissues from oxidative stress. However, many plants not commonly consumed also contain highly beneficial antioxidants. One such plant is a pine tree Pinus maritima, the bark of which contains an antioxidants called proanthocyanidins.
The native North American Indians used the bark of the pine tree as a decoction to provide high levels of vitamin C, proanthocyanidins and other beneficial nutrients to supplement their diet. It may have been the French explorer Jacques Cartier that first highlighted the antiscorbutic effects of the pine bark extract to Europeans, when he used it to treat scurvy ridden sailors under his command. A discuvery likely aided by the local knowledge of the Native American Indians. It was some centuries later that a Canadian researcher Jacques Masquelier identified the health effects of pine bark extracts and attributed many of these effects to the proanthocyanidins in the bark. From his research a patented formula containing a specific amount of proanthocyanidins was formulated, and this supplemental extract was called pycnogenol. Proanthocyanidins are actually polymers of the catechin compounds found in tea, and evidence suggests they are biologically active and have antioxidant effects in humans that confer health benefits.
However, the proanthocyanidins in pine bark extract are not unique. They are also present in high concentrations in grapes, berries, cocoa, wine, cinnamon as well as in lower amounts in many other fruits and vegetables. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables therefore provides high amounts of proanthocyanidins that should confer the same health effects as pine bark extract. The benefits of consuming proanthocyanidins through the diet is that many other antioxidants and essential nutrients will be consumed in the whole foods. Supplements of proanthocyanidins are also available having been extracted from grape seeds, and these tend to be cheaper than the pine bark extracted equivalents. Further, as the proanthocyanidins are polymers of the catechin, it may be possible to experience much of the beneficial antioxidant effects of proanthocyanidins from tea. It is not clear if the high molecular weight proanthocyanidins are absorbed intact, or more likely digested to smaller monomers, dimers and trimers, before absorption.