Nature’s Course: Nutraceuticals let food be the medicine

by: Hyder A. Khoja, Ph.D., M.Sc., P.Ag.

Over the past few decades, the world has witnessed the explosive growth of a multibillion-dollar nutraceutical industry. Nutraceuticals, a term combining the words nutrition and pharmaceutical, are foods or food products that provide health and medical benefits. Nutraceutical-rich vegetables and fruits are not only an important component of a nutritious diet, they are medicinal foods that play a role in maintaining well-being, enhancing health, modulating immunity and thereby preventing as well as treating specific diseases.

The exploration and exploitation of the disease-fighting properties of a multitude of phytochemicals found in both food and non-food plants have created a renaissance in human health and nutrition research. At the same time, many opportunities for the development of novel dietary products have been created. Such products may range from isolated nutrients, dietary supplements and specific diets to genetically engineered foods, herbal products and processed foods such as cereals, soups and beverages.

Research has proven that foods with phytochemicals, including carotenoids found in carrots or even lycopene from tomatoes, may help to provide protection from diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.

Nutraceuticals may be an emerging industry, but it has ancient beginnings. About 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” The Indians, Egyptians, Chinese, and Sumerians are just a few civilizations that have provided evidence suggesting that food can be effectively used as medicine to treat and prevent disease; this fact was supported by Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old Indian health science. The modern nutraceutical market began to develop in Japan during the 1980s; it has continued to grow ever since as new technologies, along with increased awareness, drive its exploration and expansion.

In recent years there is a growing interest in nutraceuticals to provide an alternative to modern medicine and possibly reduce or eliminate the need for conventional medications. Such products include food supplements, dietary supplements, and value-added processed foods, as well as non-food supplements like pills.

Food products used as nutraceuticals contain chemically active compounds that are derived from fruits, vegetables and different types of herbal foods. The most common of these compounds are phytochemical antioxidants, prebiotics, probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fibres.

Research has proven that foods with phytochemicals, including carotenoids found in carrots or even lycopene from tomatoes, may help to provide protection from diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. It has also been suggested by various epidemiological and animal model studies that nutraceuticals (mostly phytochemical extracts from nutritional or medicinal plants such as tea, garlic, tomato, ginger, soya bean etc.), may have chemopreventive activity.

Thus, the field of nutraceutical can be envisioned as one of the missing blocks in improving the overall health of all humans. And the research proving that nutraceuticals are efficacious to treat and prevent various disease conditions is growing every day.

Role of Nutraceutical in Treating Various Disease Conditions

Research studies have found that the mechanisms nutraceuticals use to offer benefits such as reducing cancer incidence, are closely related to apoptosis—more commonly known as programmed cell death. While this may sound scary, it is actually a beneficial process found in all multicellular organisms. There is a vast amount of information in the literatures demonstrating various nutraceuticals supporting apoptosis in cultured human cells.

As Flavenoids

Flavonoids are found ubiquitously in all pigmented plants (specifically such as the catechins). The most common group of polyphenolic compound ingested by humans in their diet through variety of food sources like: fruits and vegetables. The widespread distribution of flavonoids, their variety and their relatively low toxicity compared to other active plant compounds make it rich of any other compound found in plants with a significant health benefits.

They have shown to have a wide variation in biological and pharmacological activities. They are well researched for anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrheal, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, antiviral, anti-cancer and as antioxidant activities. They also have shown to inhibit topoisomerases enzyme and induce DNA mutations in the mixed-lineage leukemia (MLL) gene.

As Terpenoids

Terpenoids are the most diverse and largest class of plant natural products with wide industrial application, including provitamin A, vitamin E, flavours, pharmaceuticals, perfumes, insecticides, and anti-microbial agents. Other valuable terpenoid compounds that have been modified include the introduction of beta-carotene to tomato fruits and rice and zeaxanthin to potato tubers. Tomato is a major food crop and the principal source of the carotenoid lycopene. Epidemiological studies have clearly shown the great benefits of consumption of tomato to human health due to tomato carotenoids, mainly lycopene, beta-carotene, and lutein.

Hence, the advances in the areas of food technology, food biochemistry and the nutritional sciences (including nutritional genomics) are providing consumers with access to fresh and often supplemented produce with recognizable health benefits that previously were not available.

Table 1. Various phytochemicals used in disease prevention by their apoptotic action

The Future of Nutraceuticals

Nutraceuticals are intended to play a significant role in future therapeutic advancement, but their victory will be governed by direction of purity, safety, and efficacy without reducing innovation. Nutraceuticals will continue to lead because they are suitable for today’s lifestyle. Some are also authentically researched and offer novel ingredients that can bring about health profits faster than would normally be the case through eating conventionally healthy foods alone. Public health authorities consider prevention and treatment with nutraceuticals as a commanding gadget in maintaining health and performing against nutritionally induced acute and chronic diseases, thereby promoting optimal health, longevity and quality of life.

A place for nutraceuticals in clinical practice is rising, but important pharmaceutical and clinical issues need to be addressed by further research. Nutraceuticals still need extensive scientific study to prove their effects with reduced side effects.

The next discoveries and innovations in nutraceuticals may come from a large pharmaceutical and biotechnology company, such as Monsanto, DuPont or Novartis, all of which are investing significant resources in their investigations.

However, many of the most significant nutraceutical applications thus far have come from independent researchers and health supplement companies. Therefore, one should keep an eye on more than the big corporations when looking for the next major nutraceutical breakthrough.

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