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A palm reading that’s fruitful?

Special to The Times

Is there a reliable way to check my antioxidant levels? A laser scan said I was running low.

GAIL L.

Riverside

The products: When a fender oxidizes, it’s called “rust.” In your body, oxidation plays a key role in aging and disease. Antioxidants such as vitamin E, vitamin C and beta carotene can offer protection, but you may wonder if you have enough to keep the rust away. If you’re concerned -- or just curious -- you can always try a high-tech palm reading.

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Just stick your hand in a BioPhotonic Scanner, a laser device that will scan your skin for carotenoids, antioxidant pigments found in colorful fruits and vegetables. The tally is then translated into a “Body Defense Score.” Doctors, chiropractors, nutritionists, personal trainers and a few doctors across the country offer carotenoid scans as part of their services, often at little or no cost to customers. According to Kara Schneck, spokeswoman for Pharmanex, the company that manufactures the scanner, more than 5 million people worldwide have already been scanned. Pharmanex markets an antioxidant supplement to help people boost their scores.

The scanner isn’t the only antioxidant gauge out there: You can also order an antioxidant testing kit over the Internet. For about $60, you’ll get a small plastic test tube and a prepaid envelope -- the standard equipment for sending urine by mail. Lab technicians will check your urine for signs of oxidative damage and send you a report.

The claims: Marketers make it sound as if your antioxidant score is a vital sign in the same league as blood pressure. A Pharmanex website calls the BioPhotonic Scanner the “dietary assessment of the future” to be used by “anyone who is mindful of his or her current health.” Schneck says the scanner “helps people make well-informed choices about nutrition.”

Antioxidant test kits claim to promote “optimal wellness and optimum nutrition.” And they offer the chance to avoid disaster: “If your antioxidant status is low and is allowed to go undetected, it could seriously affect your health and performance,” one site warns.

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Bottom line: It may sound farfetched, but a laser scan of your palm really can detect antioxidants, says Ronald Prior, a nutritionist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Little Rock, Ark. The antioxidant carotenoids that add color to many fruits and vegetables will also add color to your skin, and the laser can measure the subtle hues. (Or not so subtle: Eat a pound of carrots every day for a week and your skin will turn orange.)

The carotenoids in your skin reflect the carotenoids in your diet, Prior says. “If that number is low, your consumption of fruits and vegetables is not what it should be,” he says.

But although the scan can provide a wake-up call for people who skimp on their greens (and yellows and oranges), it doesn’t say much about their overall antioxidant levels, Prior adds. Carotenoids are just one part of the antioxidant arsenal. It takes sophisticated -- and pricey -- blood tests to get a full picture.

Mail-order urine tests would provide even less complete measures of one’s antioxidant status, says nutrition professor Garry Handelman of the University of Massachusetts. “I won’t say that they’re completely worthless, but they’re about as close as they can get,” he says.

Anyone who eats anything remotely resembling a normal American diet will likely have enough antioxidants to prevent the kind of damage measured by the mail-order tests, Handelman says. Only people with certain serious conditions such as kidney failure or diabetes should expect unusual readings.

Handelman adds that most Americans already get plenty of antioxidants. The real problem is that we’re falling short on fruits and vegetables. The world of broccoli and bananas, he says, offers benefits that go far beyond antioxidants or anything else that can be captured in a pill.

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Is there a product you’d like the Healthy Skeptic to examine? E-mail health@latimes.com.

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