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Dissecting Nutraceuticals

Do nutritional supplements deliver the goods?

By Connie Vivero-Luayon


Health stores today offer a wide variety of supplements that claim to prevent or cure certain diseases. But what are these products? Are they safe to consume? Do they live up to their promises?

Supplements and fortified food

From the words “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical,” the term “nutraceutical” is used to describe a fortified food or a dietary supplement that provides health and medical benefits, including the prevention and treatment of disease. Many different products may fall under the category of nutraceuticals, but the most popular are dietary or nutritional supplements, and functional foods. Nutraceuticals in the form of dietary supplements are products that contain nutrients derived from food products. Examples of dietary ingredients are vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs or other botanicals, and substances such as enzymes and organ tissues. Dietary supplements come in tablets, capsules, liquids or powder form.

Functional foods are ordinary foods enriched by components or ingredients meant to provide specific health benefits. Examples of functional foods are milk fortified with vitamin D, fish sauce fortified with iron, and fruit juices enriched with vitamins A, C and E.

Food as medicine

The idea of harnessing the healing properties of food is not new. Countries like China, Korea, India and Tibet have been using it in the practice of traditional medicine for many centuries. They also integrate their traditional ways of healing in today’s practice of modern medicine.

According to Jaime Galvez-Tan, M.D., a wellness physician and former Department of Health secretary, traditional and alternative medicine is now being integrated into the Philippine healthcare system.

“Although our indigenous herbal medicine is yet to be recognized by the World Health Organization, our government [already] promotes its use through the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act (TAMA) of 1997," Galvez-Tan says.

Sambong tea, for example, may be taken to relieve one’s bladder problems. Lagundi is now commercially sold to consumers in capsule form and as cough syrup.

In today’s busy world, food and drug manufacturers find ways to make these “medicinal foods” readily available by producing nutraceuticals. Acai berries, known to contain powerful antioxidants that fight cancer, are sold in powder form. Korean ginseng, which gives energy and vitality, is added to beverages and drinks. Vitamin premixes improve the nutritional value of processed or canned foods.

Safety and efficacy

Nutraceuticals and other supplements are not regulated as drugs; therefore, their manufacturers are not required to prove that these products are safe and effective. Some, however, have a history of safety which consumers simply rely on. Most dietary supplements are derived from natural sources such as plants and animals. Because such dietary supplements are natural, some people assume that they are safe to use—but this is not necessarily the case.

Some supplements contain substances other than the supposed active ingredient. These substances may be prescription drugs, nonprescription drugs, or harmful chemicals such as mercury.

Supplements can also interact with other drugs. Such interactions may intensify or reduce the effectiveness of a drug or cause serious side effects.

“If it has been approved by our FDA, it must be safe for use, but safety is still a lot different from being effective,” suggests nutritionist Denver Calayo, RND. “Nutritional supplements may play a role in our overall health when combined with balanced diet and regular physical activities.”

Nutraceuticals and health

The amount of active ingredient in a dose of a supplement may vary, especially when whole herbs are ground or made into extracts to produce a tablet, capsule or solution. The buyer is at risk of getting less or more of the active ingredient.

Some supplement brands suggest effectiveness based on consumer testimonials or studies done on animals. Often, whether or not a certain medication will work depends on one’s state of health. If you are taking a nutritional supplement your body doesn’t need, you may end up flushing down all those extra doses along with the money spent on them.

“Seek medical consultation before taking a supplement,” counsels Galvez-Tan. A health and nutrition expert can best advise you on the kind of supplements you need, given your current health status, diet and lifestyle.

For more tips and facts about nutraceuticals, get a copy of the October issue of HealthToday magazine, out now in newsstands and bookstores.

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