Vitamins C and E, green tea, red wine, blueberries, pomegranates.... Just mention “antioxidants” and aging Baby Boomers perk up, intrigued by the notion that a simple food source could help fend off disease and slow aging. But recent headlines about the inefficacy of single-antioxidant supplements, such as vitamin E, have fueled doubts about these miracle compounds. With consumers spending $3.3 billion annually on antioxidant supplements, according to Nutrition Business Journal, the question looms: Do they work, or not?

Absolutely, say researchers: Just not the way we thought they did. “The evidence is very strong that dietary antioxidants can promote health and reduce risk for chronic disease,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University. “But we now recognize they do more than quench free radicals.”

In fact, scientists say, certain “indirect antioxidants”—like sulforaphane from broccoli, curcumin from turmeric, or anthocyanins from berries—can actually prompt the body to produce more of its own antioxidants, mounting a powerful defense against oxidative stress for several days. Meanwhile, new research is showing all antioxidants—whether “direct” or “indirect”—seem to work better together. “Loading up on one antioxidant would be like sending in one fireman to put out a fire,” says Canadian nutritionist and holistic physician Bryce Wylde, author of The Antioxidant Prescription (Random House, 2008). “ [Antioxidants] work like a team.”