National Nutrition Week: A look at nutraceuticals for nutrition

Nutraceuticals have witnessed a boom in their mass-market availability and consumption of late. As functional foods that promise to deliver a medical or health benefit, many people today are choosing to include nutraceuticals, such as chewable tablets or powder mixes of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, or enzymes. One must, first, understand what nutraceuticals are.

The term nutraceutical comes from the words, ‘nutrition’ and ‘pharmaceutical’, which was coined by the founder and chairman of the Foundation of Innovation Medicine, Stephen L. DeFelice.

Nutraceuticals can be defined as food products, derivatives, or extracts that can exhibit pharmaceutical activities in addition to their nutritional value. According to the WHO, Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) account for approximately 70 per cent of the deaths that happen worldwide. The growing NCD epidemic along with the recent ongoing pandemic has accelerated the growth of the nutraceutical sector worldwide and especially in India.

Today, India has transformed into a self-assured, global leader in the $4-5 billion nutraceutical industry. This is forecasted to grow to approximately $18 billion by 2025. Consumers’ changing perspectives and attitudes towards preventative health, holistic health, immunity, and strength, as well as growing health consciousness, are factors driving them towards seeking nutraceuticals. The market for nutraceuticals is driven by convenience, availability, access, and affordability.

However, nutraceuticals are only supposed to complement – and not replace – nutrients derived from meals. As dietary supplements, nutraceuticals prescribed by a medical practitioner can help achieve certain health goals, such as managing certain deficiencies or encouraging holistic growth, as in the case of folic acid for pregnant mothers.

Having different antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, cardioprotective, and several other health benefits, nutraceuticals available in the market can be classified into traditional and non-traditional nutraceuticals. Traditional Nutraceuticals are natural substances derived from foods without any or minimal changes. They have additional benefits apart from their basic nutrition needs, such as Omega-3 fatty acids, lycopene, beta-glucan, and zinc. These nutraceuticals can be further grouped into Chemical Constituents, Herbs, and Phytochemicals.

Chemical constituents include nutrients that already have an established role in the body, such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids. For example, minerals and vitamins such as Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, and Vitamin D are essential to prevent osteoporosis. Nitric acid found in beetroot, which acts as a potent vasodilator, can help manage hypertension. Omega-3 Fatty acids found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts have strong evidence against preventing Cardiovascular diseases and relieving inflammatory conditions such as Osteoarthritis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Traditionally, herbs have common usage across Asia in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese Medicine, and across Europe to prevent chronic diseases and improve health. The curcumin active component found in turmeric is popularly known for its anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol, and triglyceride reduction benefits. Green tea extract is known to help in weight reduction by increasing energy expenditure and fat oxidation. Berberine is an antihyperglycemic agent known to increase insulin resistance and decrease insulin production from the liver. Similarly, cinnamon has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity.

On the other hand, phytochemicals are foods whose name is derived from their phytochemical properties. Isoflavonoids, Carotenoids, and Phytoestrogens found in various fruits and vegetables, legumes, and soybeans have shown strong evidence of anti-carcinogenic properties preventing cancers such as prostate and breast cancer.

Traditional nutraceuticals also include probiotic substances which help in aiding the proliferation of good bacteria in the gut. There is currently a lot of research undergoing on probiotics showing some promising results in helping people manage various health conditions from obesity, and osteoarthritis to depression and Alzheimer’s.

When it comes to non-traditional nutraceuticals, these are foods that are manufactured via biotechnology. These are fortified nutraceuticals, where nutrients or ingredients are added to general household food products to increase their nutritive value, for instance, when iodine is added to salt or Vitamins A and D are added to edible oils. There are also recombinant nutraceuticals where methods such as fermentation and genetic engineering, are used in the production of food products.

Regardless of the form or production method of a nutraceutical, the quality, safety, and efficacy of the products are important to note. Moreover, nutraceuticals should not be used to self-medicate in the form of pills.

Views expressed by Manasa Lakshmi Penta, Clinical Dietician, GITAM Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, Visakhapatnam

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