Nutraceuticals They are one of the new magic words of healthy eating.
It is more than proven that diet directly influences our health. And we know very well that the Mediterranean diet is probably the healthiest there is.
However, whatever we eat, more and more people are getting some form of it. supplements, whether in the form of pills, syrups, etc. to compensate for supposed deficiencies in their diet or to prevent diseases.
For example, it is quite common to take:
- Effervescent vitamin C to prevent colds
- Magnesium pills to increase vitality
- Omega-3 capsules to reduce cholesterol…
However, there are some issues that we need to consider before we start using these “feeding aids”.
The first thing you need to know is that Not all nutritional supplements are the same.
And the latest thing in fashion is the ‘nutraceutical products‘. A term that is used more and more every day on social networks.
But, what exactly are they?
What are nutraceuticals and how are they different from dietary supplements?
The term nutraceutical was coined in 1989. by a doctor, Dr. Stephen DeFeliceand comes from the union of “nutrient” and “pharmaceutical”.
Although the truth is that one of the main challenges when talking about nutraceuticals is the lack of definition unique and universal.
- The most widespread idea is that considered a nutraceutical product drugs made with substances derived from foods that, in certain doses, are used to treat or prevent diseasefor example: vitamin C, collagen, omega-3, vitamin B6…
And even if you think nutraceuticals and nutritional supplements are the same, There is an important nuance that differentiates themas pointed out by Dr Beatriz Colladomember in food and nutrition of the Official College of Pharmacists of Madrid:
- “I don’t like to use the two terms synonymously.because under the aegis of ‘dietary supplement“There are some who have scientific proof demonstrated and others not.
In other words, we could say that nutraceuticals are:
- Concrete products backed by scientific evidence.
- With a specific concentration.
- And with the recommended dosage.
This differentiates them from nutritional supplements, which is not always the case.
Of course, it should be clear that the goal of nutraceuticals is benefit from the properties of certain foods improve health in a more “natural” way and without side effects, but They do not claim to cure any disease..
Marketing issue: nutraceuticals, fortified foods and functional foods
Currently, marketing, advertising and social networks have a lot to do with the viralization of words like nutraceuticals, fortified foods and functional foods.
And although everyone tries to get the most out of the nutrients found in food, in many cases These terms are used intentionally. to give a healthier image, such as affirmation in “miracle diets”or many other situations which may deceive the consumer.
To be clear about their differences, the Dr. Francisco Botellacoordinator of the nutrition area of the Spanish Society of Endocrinology and Nutrition (SEEN) explains:
- Nutraceuticals: They come in the form of a non-food matrix (pills, drops, ampoules, etc.). That is, they extract the nutrients and properties of a food to take it in a concentrated form and in specific doses. They are what many wrongly call food supplements, such as vitamin C, magnesium, iron…
- Fortified foods: Foods to which additional nutrients and properties are added that they do not normally have. For example, milk with omega-3, fruit juice with vitamins or salt with iodine.
- Functional foods: These are the foods that provide benefits beyond nutritional valuehow can they be antibiotic properties of garlic or the Probiotics from kefir.
For his part, Collado insists that To be effective, the nutraceutical must be administered in appropriate dosesnot only to get results, but also to avoid creating confusion among consumers:
- “For example, Milk enriched with omega-3 is not a nutraceutical because drinking one drink does not guarantee ingesting the recommended dose. So this product may be good for the diet, but it will not be effective. It is these cases which they mislead the consumer“.
Scientists denounce the absence of specific legal regulations
One of the things that scientists denounce the most is the lack of specific regulations for nutraceuticals.
This situation means that it is not necessary to demonstrate scientific evidence to market these products, and we note that currently a loaf of bread is governed by the same legislation as a multivitamin.
- “We, pharmacists, try to fight so that there is a specific legal framework and that all products classified as nutraceuticals have demonstrated scientific evidence” Collado said.
This creates a swampy terrain around these products and is the main cause of consumer confusion, a situation often exploited in advertising campaigns.
Are the benefits of nutraceuticals scientifically proven?
Nutraceuticals claim to have a wide range of benefitsespecially when it comes to prevent diseases (strengthen immune health) or improvement of symptoms, such as chronic pain control. In short, they continue improvement of general well-being.
But these advantages Are they scientifically proven? Again, it depends on the case. Because there are no demanding regulations, there are some who do it and others who don’t.
- “In the vast majority of cases, no studies demonstrate the benefits of nutraceuticals. There is only advertising,” explains Dr Botella.
Indeed, a study carried out by scientists from Northwestern University of Medicine, in the United States and published in the scientific journal JAMA Network in 2022, confirmed that:
- There is not enough evidence that taking multivitamins or dietary supplements helps prevent disease in healthy people (who are not pregnant).
However, in certain specific cases, these nutraceuticals are useful, as Dr. Botella points out:
- “For example, a person following a vegan diet should take a vitamin B12, since it is not present in any food of plant origin. The same thing happens when blood test values appear. Vitamin D low, because it can be solved by taking nutraceuticals. But always in specific situations.
- Another case in which taking nutraceuticals is beneficial and it’s proven when it comes to controlling cholesterol.
This is indicated by the results obtained in a test developed by the Internal Medicine Department of the Barcelona Clinic, which showed that the supplement marketed as Aquilea Cholesterol reduced cholesterol by 15% in three months and without side effects.
What are the best-selling nutraceuticals?
Collado comments that some of the best-selling products in his pharmacy are probiotics, antioxidants and products for improve sleep quality or control the anxiety.
According to studies, another of the most consumed nutraceuticals in Europe is vitamins.
In Spain, seven out of ten people consume vitaminsaccording to a recent survey carried out in 14 countries by Food Supplements Europe (FSE) and Ipsos.
THE five most popular dietary supplements in the EU they are:
- Vitamin D (46%)
- Vitamin C (36%)
- Magnesium (33%)
- Multivitamins/minerals (29%)
- Omega 3/fish oil (19%)
On the other hand, the study reveals that almost nine out of ten European citizens have taken a food supplement at some point in their lives and 93% of them have done so in the past year.
Food supplements never replace healthy lifestyle habits
Dr Botella insists that the most important thing is have healthy lifestyle habitsand declares that:
- “A person who does not suffer from serious illnesses, who follows a healthy Mediterranean diet, gets all the nutrients without the need for supplements.”
For his part, Dr. Collado recalls that “due to the pace of life that we lead, in most cases this is insufficient and it is necessary to supplement, for example with vitamin D.”
Of course, he recommends that you always use quality products with proven effectiveness:
- “It is not the same laboratory tested melatonin and recommended by a pharmacist, than by that of the supermarket, of which no one controls the rigor or the manufacturing criteria with measures of bioavailability and effectiveness.
Eventually, best advice on nutraceuticals is that we always ask our doctor and choose products with proven scientific evidence.