What Are Nutraceuticals and Why Should You Care?
You may have heard the term, but what are nutraceuticals, exactly, and how are they different from vitamin supplements and pharmaceuticals?
As I'll soon explain, it all comes down to nature -- a nutraceutical is a biological molecule, or group of biological molecules that are derived from nature, because they are molecules found in plants and animals, often within foods we already consume.
Read on to learn about this important distinction, but first, some history.
The term 'nutraceutical' was coined in 1989 by a man named Stephen DeFelice, who was chairman and founder of a medical organization in New Jersey called the 'Foundation for Innovation in Medicine'. Anyone who consumes food supplements, or who works in a field related to nutrition in some way, has probably heard the term 'nutraceutical' by now. You may have even used the term yourself. What does nutraceutical mean? The answer, I've found, depends to some extent on who you ask.
Nutraceuticals – A Paradigm in Dietary Supplementation
The field of dietary supplementation has evolved over the last eighty years from simple vitamins and herbal remedies based on anecdotal folk traditions, to a highly technical, scientifically-oriented field of biological and plant-based molecules, whose safety and efficacy are backed by evidence obtained through scientific research.
The twenty-first century supplement industry has adopted this new term, 'nutraceutical', as a way of distinguishing itself from its earlier roots. Nutraceuticals have the potential to one day compete on an equal footing, side-by-side, with pharmaceutical drugs for safety and effectiveness. In order to appreciate how we reached the point where it was necessary to adopt a new term for dietary supplements, it is helpful to explore:
- The origins of the dietary supplement business.
- The evolution from vitamins and minerals to the inclusion of herb-based supplements.
- The evolution from raw herb-based remedies to concentrated herbal extracts.
- The development of natural, biological molecules backed by scientific research.
- The ongoing political and legal struggle over the regulation of dietary supplements and the current U.S. laws which protect the nutraceutical industry from over-regulation by the FDA.
There is no medically, or scientifically recognized definition for nutraceutical. It is largely a term which has been embraced and adopted by manufacturers and marketers of supplements. But like many new terms that find their way into our lexicon, 'nutraceutical' has now found its way into dictionaries. One online dictionary defines 'nutraceutical' as:
"A nutrient or food believed to have health-promoting or disease-preventing properties."
The term nutraceutical suggests that a particular supplement ingredient, or combination of ingredients, has a special purpose in supporting human health and well-being beyond merely offering simple dietary supplementation. While not always the case, it also suggests that there is some scientific evidence that supports its application and effectiveness in helping to prevent or treat some specific health condition or conditions.
The term 'functional food' carries a similar connotation. But a functional food, along with having some intended benefit beyond basic nutrition, is an actual food, a component of our diet. A nutraceutical is a nutrient that we consume as a dietary supplement.
The Evolution from Vitamins to Nutraceuticals
So, do we really need a new term? Stephen DeFelice thought so. I agree with him. The world of food supplements has evolved significantly over the years. It has teamed up with science and developed into a much more sophisticated field. It's not just about vitamins and minerals any more. This twenty-first century supplement business is not your grandfather's supplement business. It's different.
Nutraceuticals, despite certain limitations placed on them by way of government regulations, have a similar role to play in human health and well-being compared to pharmaceuticals. But there are important differences. A nutraceutical is a biological molecule, or group of biological molecules that derive from nature. They are molecules found in plants and animals, often within foods we already consume. Pharmaceuticals are synthetic molecules that are developed for the purpose of preventing, treating, or curing some specific health condition or disease. Sometimes, one of these synthetic molecules is patterned after a biological molecule. But in order for a pharmaceutical company to obtain a patent to protect their investment, their chemists find some way to modify the original molecule into a form which is novel and patentable.
In the Beginning, there were Vitamins and Minerals
Beginning in the 1940's, scientists began isolating and processing specific vitamins. Then companies started to offer vitamins for sale as dietary supplements. Vitamins were contained in our foods and were recognized to be essential components to a nutritious diet. Offering vitamins by themselves as supplements seemed like a logical and positive way to ensure that users consumed a sufficient amount each day to support their basic nutritional requirements. Vitamin companies soon realized that since minerals were also essential components to human nutrition, they should offer minerals for sale as well, either by themselves, and in combination with vitamins.
Then Came Herbs
The field of herbs, or 'plant medicines', has been around a lot longer than vitamins. The Indian Ayurvedic system and traditional Chinese medicine, both of which are primarily plant-based, are both thousands of years old. Native Americans also used plants for healing. Historically, no matter where you look in this world, you find cultures that relied on plants to support healing and well-being.
Historic people did not have capsules to provide a convenient means of consumption. Occasionally, they pressed herb powders into tablets with some kind of binder, like acacia gum. But the traditional method of consumption of plant medicines was in a 'decoction', or tea. The village healer, or some family member, would brew up a big pot of the herb, or herbs, would then steep it for some time, often for days, and then the patient would drink the tea. Decoctions are a highly efficient method of consuming herbs. The brewing process is actually an extraction mechanism, where most of the active components of the plant are leached into the water, resulting in a concentrated, highly potent medicine.
In the mid-twentieth century, several books on herbs became popular. These books, for the most part, documented historic and cultural applications of plant-based medicines that had been passed on through centuries of written and oral tradition. The technical know-how regarding the use of each herb was derived from anecdotal accounts stemming from cases where the patients consumed the herbs by way of decoctions.
In the 1960's, a Utah entrepreneur got the idea that a great way to market nutritional herbs would be in capsules. With capsules, the consumer would not have to taste the herbs, which were often bitter. It was also a clever way to market the herbs, since the products would be in a familiar, consumer-friendly form already used by vitamin companies. This original Utah company soon spawned a half dozen similar companies.
But there was one underlying fallacy in this capsule packaging/marketing approach. The largest capsule used in the food supplement business can only hold about 500-600 mg of herb powder. These new herb companies had no idea what a proper dosage should be, since this was a new and untested method of delivery. So, they reasoned, since vitamins were normally dosed at two tablets or two capsules per day, "We'll just (arbitrarily) say that two capsules per day, or about one gram of our herb product, is the recommended usage". What they failed to realize is that, compared to the highly efficient delivery method of decoctions, consuming only one gram of the raw herb powder as a recommended serving was grossly under-dosed. A typical decoction probably contained ten, twenty, or even a hundred times the amount of active ingredients compared to two capsules of raw herb powder.
Indian Science to the Rescue
If you want a benchmark to denote the dawn of the 'nutraceutical industry', you can use India as the place and the twentieth century as the timeframe. While chemists and engineers at U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies were hard at work, applying scientific methods to their exploration of synthetic molecules, and the development of pharmaceutical drugs, scientists and engineers in India and China were busy applying those very same scientific methods to the investigation into their traditional herbal medicines.
These Asian scientists began breaking down and identifying all of the active components in each herb. Then they developed extraction methods to separate out these active components into highly concentrated medicines. These concentrated medicines were then added back in to the raw herb powder, creating a concentrated, powdered herbal extract. These powdered extracts were formulated into various concentrations, such as 60% raw powder with 40% pure active component, or in some cases 2% raw herb powder and 98% active component, etc. This development of concentrated extracts produced a new generation of herbal medicines: nutraceuticals. Indians have embraced the term 'nutraceutical', and when they use the term, they are specifically referring to their concentrated herbal extracts.
The popular Indian spice, turmeric, offers a good example of why these concentrated extracts are so significant. Asian people have consumed turmeric for centuries, not just as a spice, but also for its health benefits. The active component in turmeric is curcumin. Curcumin, which is recognized for numerous benefits, including its anti-inflammatory properties, is present in raw turmeric powder in a concentration of about 3% . Researchers have concluded that a daily dosage of 1000 mg. +/- of curcumin is needed in order to realize its therapeutic benefits. But at a concentration of only 3%, a person would have to consume over an ounce of turmeric daily to reap these benefits. Sadly, many users still consume the raw turmeric in capsules, thinking that it provides a sufficient dosage.
There is now a large body of scientific evidence that supports the efficacy and safety of plant-based medicines. For example, in the PubMed database, curcumin is referenced in over 14,000 published studies . Most of the research on herbs has been conducted in Asia where there is an enormous market for these medicines.
One popular Asian herb is Eurycoma longifolia, also known as Tongkat ali. One review study of Tongkat ali broke the raw plant down into sixteen active chemical constituents. Then the authors discussed the therapeutic properties of each of these constituents pursuant to in vitro, animal, and human tests . The world of nutraceutical, plant-based medicines is becoming a very scientific world.
Biological Molecules – Next Generation Nutraceuticals
A biological molecule is a substance present within, or produced by cells of living organisms. Biological molecules perform numerous functions and are of four major types: carbohydrates, lipids (fats), nucleic acids (RNA and DNA related), and proteins.
Not to be outdone, while Indian scientists were busy cataloging their herbal medicines, Western scientists and engineers began investigating biological molecules for their potential nutritional, medicinal or therapeutic value. Some of these substances were molecules found in our foods. Others were substances that are found within the human body. Three examples of biological molecules include:
- Nicotinamide mononucleotide
Resveratrol is a flavonol (flavonoid) found in fruits and vegetables. It is produced by the plant as a defense against diseases. Resveratrol has been demonstrated to have numerous therapeutic benefits for people, and is best known for its antioxidant properties and widely used to promote longevity .
Choline, or citicoline, is a chemical produced by the human brain. Japanese researchers discovered its important role in brain physiology. After identifying its biochemical make-up, they reproduced it synthetically. In Europe and Japan, choline is available as a prescription medication. Here in the U.S., the FDA has cleared it to be sold as a supplement.
NMN, or Nicotinamide mononucleotide, is another timely example. NMN is a molecule found in some foods and also found within the human body. NMN is a precursor to the essential cellular molecule, NAD . NMN is now produced as a stand-alone biological molecule and marketed as a dietary supplement.
This advent of plant-based phytochemicals and biological molecules being made readily available to consumers as dietary supplements has opened up an exciting new sphere in the field of nutraceuticals. Now, individual molecular components of natural substances can be identified, isolated, tested, and made available to the public; in most cases, without prescription. These biological molecules, along with concentrated plant-based extracts, have the potential of eventually creating a paradigm in medicine, with nutraceuticals finding an equal footing with their rival, pharmaceutical counterparts.
The Politics of Nutraceuticals
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a division of the National Institutes of Health, estimates that Americans spend about $30 billion annually on alternative and complementary health services and products . The nutraceutical industry represents the largest component of this sizeable market. According to a medical news site, the nutraceutical industry is worth $117 billion annually, worldwide . Fortunately, the FDA today has little involvement in the regulation of nutraceuticals, beyond issues related to blatant cases of improper labeling, dire safety issues, and fraud.
This independent status for the nutraceutical/supplement business has the support of U.S. law. Since the 1940's, there has been an ongoing political drama over the legal and regulatory status of dietary supplements . It has been a back and forth tug-of-war, with the FDA and Big Pharma pulling one direction, and the supplement industry, consumers, and sympathetic legislators pulling the other way.
In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, championed by Senator Orrin Hatch, was signed into law by President Clinton. The impact of this law was to effectively take the FDA out of the business of regulating nutraceuticals and dietary supplements. While the FDA continues to have some broad oversight responsibilities, the nutraceutical industry is now, by and large, an industry-regulated business.