By Dr Tomislav Meštrović, MD, PhD
Nutraceuticals is a broad umbrella term that is used to describe any product derived from food sources or herbs with extra health benefits in addition to the basic nutritional value found in foods. They can be considered non-specific biological therapies used to promote general well-being, control symptoms and prevent malignant processes.
The term “nutraceutical” combines two words – “nutrient” (a nourishing food component) and “pharmaceutical” (a medical drug). The name was coined in 1989 by Stephen DeFelice, founder and chairman of the Foundation for Innovation in Medicine, an American organization located in Cranford, New Jersey.
The philosophy behind nutraceuticals is to focus on prevention, according to the saying by a Greek physician Hippocrates (known as the father of medicine) who said “let food be your medicine”. Their role in human nutrition is one of the most important areas of investigation, with wide-raging implications for consumers, health-care providers, regulators, food producers and distributors.
Categories of nutraceuticals
The definition of nutraceuticals and related products generally depends on the source. They can be classified on the basis of their natural sources, pharmacological conditions, as well as chemical constitution of the products.
Most often they are grouped in the following categories: dietary supplements, functional food, medicinal food, farmaceuticals. A dietary supplement represents a product that contains nutrients derived from food products, and is often concentrated in liquid, capsule, powder or pill form. Although dietary supplements are regulated by the FDA as foods, their regulation differs from drugs and other foods.
According to their generally accepted definition, functional food is a category which includes whole foods and fortified, enriched or enhanced dietary components that may reduce the risk of chronic disease and provide a health-benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains.
Potential health benefits
Over the years nutraceuticals have attracted considerable interest due to their potential nutritional, safety and therapeutic effects. They could have a role in a plethora of biological processes, including antioxidant defenses, cell proliferation, gene expression, and safeguarding of mitochondrial integrity.
Therefore nutraceuticals may be used to improve health, prevent chronic diseases, postpone the aging process (and in turn increase life expectancy), or just support functions and integrity of the body. They are considered to be healthy sources for prevention of life threatening diseases such as diabetes, renal and gastrointestinal disorders, as well as different infections.
A wide range of nutraceuticals have been shown to impose crucial roles in immune status and susceptibility to certain disease states. They also exhibit diseases modifying indications related to oxidative stress including allergy, Alzheimer's disease, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, eye conditions, Parkinson's diseases and obesity.