Saturday, November 21, 2015

Nutraceuticals-Are they foods or medicines or con products?

There's no evidence that the father of modern medicine Hippocrates ever said, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Some debate whether he would have even agreed with the sentiment. Nonetheless this popular quote has become the motto for the creation of a new industry going by the name "nutraceuticals". or so called "functional foods". Consumers have been made to be  aware of many developments in this area through mass scale promotion of these products. Many consumers are aware that stanols and sterols derived from natural sources can control cholesterol build up and this has been used by the industry to create products like margarines and yoghurts fortified with these phytochemicals. Who ever does not know about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids and the recommendations of health experts to consume fish which is a rich source of this essential fatty acid. Since fish is a taboo for some population attempts have been made to produce Omega-3 acids from bugs through controlled fermentation processes.  Nutraceutical industry to day seems to think that it can do everything that can con the consumer into thinking that its products can do wonders like making  him more intelligent, smarter, cleverer and boosting his immune system.  Though nutraceutical industry is on an explosive growth path, probably due to the benign attitude of policy makers in many countries, it goes to the credit of the European countries that the regulatory regimes there are becoming more and more strict in clearing such products without sufficient and credible scientific data. Do any of these so-called miracle foods, then, actually work? The science behind most nutraceutical products is at best hazy and cannot be taken as the holy grail.

In spite of the weak scientific foundation for justifying the existence of the nutraceutical industry, it is terrifying to see that in the US market alone there are more than 29000 products with thousand products being launched every year to tap the potential of these foods. A market voluume of more than $ 250 billion cannot be ignored so easily whatever may be justification. But tightening the regulatory regime is urgently called for with the food authorities laying down strict guidelines for approval like the EU countries where product claims need to be substantiated through impeccable scientific data. Using references of academic studies in Universities to support the claims cannot be an acceptable way for clearing products making health claims.  

If one traces the history of adding external substances to the food eaten commonly, it all started with enrichment and fortification which were considered necessary at one time. Food industry is to some extent responsible in spawning an entirely new manufacturing sector engaged in making nutrients like vitamins, minerals, etc which are used to "augment" the overall nutritive value of a processed food. Such additions became a necessity when during processing significant portions of nutrients are removed reducing the wholesomeness of the natural food. Take the case of rice milled from Paddy. It is true that the inedible shell enclosing the grain has to be removed to make it edible but the processor went further to get a grain with high degree of whiteness by polishing thereby removing vital nutrients like vitamins, minerals, many beneficial phytochemicals and the fiber contained in the bran. Similarly the white flour extracted from wheat grain has practically no nutrient left and it is but a product containing only starch and gluten. Is it not a tragedy that the nutritionally valuable constituents like bran and germ finally end up in animal feeds! This had necessitated "enrichment" of this flour with vitamins and other nutrients. Like these there are hundreds of instances where natural nutrients are removed as a prerequisite to obtain a nice looking end product!

Naturally the increased awareness of the consumer about the close relationship between health and food played its part in motivating the industry to come up with healthier products. However there are severe limitations for the processors in restoring the health value of a natural material after processing to its original glory, no matter what technology they deploy. More than 90% of processed foods in the US are "fortified" or "enriched" to convey the impression that the end products coming out of the production line are as good as the raw material used in terms of nutrition. But health pundits are never convinced about this because of the fact that the nutrients present in any food cannot be considered efficient once its integrity is destroyed by the severity of processing. Thus adding bran back to the wheat flour or fortification with vitamins serves a limited purpose because of the questionable bioefficacy of these factory made products in terms of biological utilization by the body. If this is true it is very difficult to concede the point that "assembled" dietary supplements can deliver what is being promised by the manufacturers..

The term "nutraceutical" is coined to convey to the consumer that the products offered have both food value as well as medicinal connotation. Unfortunately there is no consensus that these products really serve any purpose. If one believes in the old saying that "some thing is better than nothing" probably one can accept them with "hope" that those who consume will get at least some benefit though not to the extent claims made by the manufacturer. Most products which are in the market to day world over come under this category.with the claims made not being fully supported by credible and verifiable scientific evidence. What is important is that the added nutrients when ingested can never act the same way as claimed by the manufacturers. The gastrointestinal system in man can vary in its functions and any thing ingested has to go through the elaborate digestive enzymes and secretions which are involved in converting complex food matrix into easily assimilable simple biochemicals capable of being metabolized by the cellular system after being absorbed. A nutraceutical product designed to be beneficial will have to go through the digestive system and what is its fate can never be predicted with any degree of precision. This is where the need for user trial is critical for every product with claims of different benefits made by the manufacturers. 

One has to just recall what happened to the fate of probiotics which were promoted massively attributing to them a multitude of benefits including boosting immunity and aiding digestion. A reputed company which made lot of money selling probiotics claiming the above benefits had to retract their claims in the year 2010 in the face of critical assessment by the scientists of European authorities. It is another matter that in a country like Japan nutraceuticals are being given a free run because of less rigorous rules. Other wise it is very difficult to understand how a beer product fortified with collagen is permitted in that country!. Another undesirable tendency noticed is to use substances with some health attributes for glamorizing patently unhealthy products like fizz drinks.Ultimately the larger question is whether these nutraceutical products really serve any purpose except improving the bottom line of the industry.

It is realized by the consumers that there is no short cut to good health which can come only when balanced and diverse diets are consumed with regular physical activity to burn the calories and boost metabolic activities. The recommendations by many health agencies including the FAO that diets should be predominantly made of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and unrefined products make eminent sense. In a world dominated by junk foods and their peddlers such sane advice may fall on deaf ears in the face of massive lobbying power of the modern food industry and their high decibel sound bites in the form of saturation advertisements.              ."


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