Contraversies on health benefits of ascorbic acid (vitamin C)

Does ascorbic acid acts as antioxidant or pro-oxidant?

Vitamin C is an important dietary antioxidant, it significantly decreases the adverse effect of reactive species such as reactive oxygen and nitrogen species that can cause oxidative damage to macromolecules such as lipids, DNA and proteins which are implicated in chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and cataractogenesis [93].

As shown in Table 2, ascorbic acid is a potent water soluble antioxidant capable of scavenging/ neutralizing an array of reactive oxygen species viz., hydroxyl, alkoxyl, peroxyl, superoxide anion, hydroperoxyl radicals and reactive nitrogen radicals such as nitrogen dioxide, nitroxide, peroxynitrite at very low concentrations [15]. In addition ascorbic acid can regenerate other antioxidants such as α-tocopheroxyl, urate and β-carotene radical cation from their radical species [94]. Thus, ascorbic acid acts as co-antioxidant for α-tocopherol by converting α-tocopheroxyl radical to α-tocopherol and helps to prevent the α-tocopheroxyl radical mediated peroxidation reactions [95].

AH- + Fe 3+ - - - → A• - + Fe 2+ + H+

AH- + Cu 2+ - - - → A• - + Cu+ + H +

H2O2 + Fe 2+ - - - → HO• + Fe 3+ + -OH

H2O2 + Cu + - - - → HO• + Cu 2+ + -OH

LOOH + Fe 2+ - - - → LO• + Fe 3+ + -OH

LOOH + Cu + - - - → LO + Cu+ + -OH

HO•, LO• - - - → Lipid peroxidation

Adapted from Carr and Frei [15]

These radical species are highly reactive and can trigger lipid peroxidation reactions. Thus the question arises whether vitamin C acts as a pro-oxidant in in vivo conditions? The answer appears to be "no" as though these reactions occur readily in vitro, its relevance in in vivo has been a matter of debate concerning ready availability of catalytically active free metal ions in vivo [94]. In biological systems, iron is not freely available, but it is bound to proteins like transferrin, hemoglobin and ferretin. Mobilization of iron from these biomolecules may be required before it can catalyze lipid peroxidation. Further, the concentration of free metal ions in in vivo is thought to be very low as iron and other metals are sequestered by various metal binding proteins [94]. Another factor that may affect pro-oxidant vs antioxidant property of ascorbic acid is its concentration. The in vitro data suggest that at low concentrations ascorbic acid act as a pro-oxidant, but as an antioxidant at higher levels [96]. Moreover, a recent report demonstrated that large doses of exogenous iron (200 mg) and ascorbic acid (75 mg) promote the release of iron from iron binding proteins and also enhance in vitro lipid peroxidation in serum of guinea pigs. This finding supports the hypothesis that high intake of iron along with ascorbic acid could increase in vivo lipid peroxidation of LDL and therefore could increase risk of atherosclerosis [52]. However, another study demonstrated that in iron-overloaded plasma, ascorbic acid acts as an antioxidant and prevent oxidative damage to lipids in vivo [97].

Is ascorbic acid harmful to cancer patients?

Agus et al [98] have reported that the tumor cells contain large amounts of ascorbic acid, although the role of ascorbic acid in tumors is not yet known. They have established that vitamin C enters through the facilitative glucose transporters (GLUTs) in the form of dehydroascorbic acid, which is then reduced intracellularly and retained as ascorbic acid. It is speculated that high levels of ascorbic acid in cancer cells may interfere with chemotherapy or radiation therapy since these therapies induce cell death by oxidative mechanism. Thus, ascorbic acid supplementation might make cancer treatment less effective because, ascorbic acid being a strong antioxidant may scavenge or neutralize the oxidative stress induced by chemotherapy in cancer patients. However, more studies are needed to understand the role of ascorbic acid in tumors cells and the speculative contraindication of ascorbic acid for cancer chemotherapy.

Does ascorbic acid cause cancer ?

Recently, it has been reported that lipid hydroperoxide can react with ascorbic acid to form products that could potentially damage DNA, suggesting that it may form genotoxic metabolites from lipid hydroperoxides implicating that ascorbic acid may enhance mutagenesis and risk of cancer. Lee et al [99], demonstrated that ascorbic acid induces decomposition of lipid hydroperoxide (13-(S)-hydroperoxy-(Z,E)-9,11-octadecadienoic acid;(13-HPODE) in presence of transition metals to DNA-reactive bifunctional electro-philes namely 4-oxo-2-nonenal, 4,5-epoxy-2(E)-decenal and 4-hydroxy-2-nonenal. 4-oxo-2-nonenal being a genotoxin can react with DNA bases to form mutations [100] or apoptosis [101].

Thus, the above process can give rise to substantial amounts of DNA damage in vivo. However there are many questions, which need to be considered before we accept the hypothesis that ascorbic acid can cause cancer by producing genotoxic metabolites from lipids. The hydroperoxides formed through lipid peroxidation reaction are rapidly reduced to aldehydes by a number of enzymes. Further, ascorbic acid being a strong antioxidant effectively inhibits the formation of lipid peroxides as ascorbic acid forms the first line of antioxidant defense mechanism in human plasma. The formation of lipid hydroperoxides occur only after ascorbic acid has been exhausted. Hence, interaction of ascorbic acid and hydroperoxide may not arise in human plasma. Recently, high intracellular vitamin C was reported to prevent oxidation-induced mutations in human cells [102]. Thus, the physiological relevance of these results is yet to be established in in vivo experiments.



Ascorbic acid is one of the important and essential vitamins for human health. It is needed for many physiological functions in human biology. Fresh fruits, vegetables and also synthetic tablets supplement the ascorbic acid requirement of the body. However, stress, smoking, infections and burns deplete the ascorbic acid reserves in the body and demands higher doses of ascorbic acid supplementation. Based on available biochemical, clinical and epidemiological studies, the current RDA for ascorbic acid is suggested to be 100–120 mg/day to achieve cellular saturation and optimum risk reduction of heart diseases, stroke and cancer in healthy individuals. In view of its antioxidant property, ascorbic acid and its derivatives are widely used as preservatives in food industry. Many health benefits have been attributed to ascorbic acid namely antioxidant, anti-atherogenic and anti-carcinogenic activity. Lately some of these beneficial effects of ascorbic acid are contradicted. The relation between ascorbic acid and cancer is still a debatable as the molecular mechanism underlying anti-carcinogenic activity of ascorbic acid is not clearly elucidated. Regarding the pro-oxidant activity of vitamin C in presence of iron, there is compelling evidence for antioxidant protection of lipids by ascorbic acid both with and without iron co-supplementation in animals and humans. Current evidences also suggest that ascorbic acid (vitamin C)protects against atherogenesis by inhibiting LDL oxidation. The data on vitamin C and DNA damage are conflicting and inconsistent. However, more mechanistic and human in vivo studies are warranted to establish the beneficial claims on ascorbic acid. Thus, though ascorbic acid was discovered in 17th century, the role of this important vitamin in human health and disease still remains a mystery in view of many beneficial claims and contradictions.