Nutraceuticals—Grow Your Own (GYO) Medicines?

Posted in: Nucleic Acids

  • Broccoli Bred into Cholesterol Lowering Food
  • Oz: Wizard or Quack?
  • Are the FDA and FTC Overwhelmed or Underperforming?  

‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,’ said Hippocrates, Greek physician in the fifth century BC in Athens, known as the father of western medicine. Now, in the 21st century, researchers are putting their own spin on the saying by investigating ways to incorporate medicinal compounds in our food.


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You may recall one of my recent posts expounding the apparent therapeutic effects of broccoli in treating symptoms of Autism, specifically the benefits of sulforaphane, the naturally occurring compound thought to be the active component. Well, broccoli is once again taking center stage in a technically related and more on-point example just announced by researchers at the University of Reading in the UK. This study involved breeding a variety of broccoli containing 2-3x more glucoraphanin (which is converted in the body to sulforaphane) than usual and claims that the resulting broccoli reduces cholesterol.

In two independent studies, researchers gave each of 130 volunteers close to one pound of the glucoraphanin-enriched broccoli per week to include in her or his normal diet. After 12 weeks, they saw the levels of LDL-cholesterol (bad cholesterol) in their blood drop by an average of about 6%. Although this reduction may seem trivial, when we consider that elevated LDL-cholesterol is a recognized risk factor for heart disease, the results prove to be impressive and promising. On a large population basis, a 1% reduction in LDL-cholesterol has been associated with a 1-2% reduction in risk of coronary artery disease.  Thus, this ‘super’ broccoli could account for as much as a 12% reduction in risk. Glucoraphanin-enriched broccoli is now being widely sold in supermarkets under the name Beneforté.

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I use these broccoli examples to segue to my main topic of this blog, which is “nutraceuticals”—a very broad umbrella-like term covering all manner of food and drink claimed to have beneficial health effects. Nutraceuticals are often promoted with the catchy phrase “grow your own medicines” that attempts to simultaneously leverage back-to-nature and do-it-yourself trends. Dietary supplements and so-called “functional foods” are also touched on here as they are popular topics that fall under the conceptual umbrella of nutraceuticals.

Nutraceuticals, Supplements, and Functional Foods

As a matter of fact, nutraceutical—a linguistic portmanteau of the words “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical”—was coined in 1989 by Stephen L. DeFelice, founder and chairman of the Foundation of Innovation Medicine. In researching DeFelice, it seems like he’s quite an outspoken evangelist for nutraceuticals, and quite an engaging speaker who posted an entertaining YouTube video self-introduction and “letter to the Pope.” But I digress…

Broadly speaking, nutraceuticals are products derived from food sources and are purported to provide “extra” health benefits, i.e. over and above those provided by the food’s nutrients. Nutraceuticals encompass dietary supplements and functional foods. At the risk of being boringly didactic, but in the interest of accuracy, here’s a brief synopsis of each of these subclasses.


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Dietary supplements have become increasingly popular and are big business, with estimated sales reaching $15.5 billion in 2017. Using myself as an example of a dedicated dietary supplements consumer, each morning meal includes taking an “all-in-one” drinkable blend of 50 vitamins, minerals and nutrients for energy, vitamin D, omega-3 krill oil, acidophilus & probiotic complex, psyllium seed husks, and forskolin (Coleus extract).

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For authoritative information, I consulted an FDA website which states the following:

“Congress defined the term ‘dietary supplement’ in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. A dietary supplement is a product taken by mouth that contains a ‘dietary ingredient’ intended to supplement the diet. The ‘dietary ingredients’ in these products may include: vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars, and metabolites. Dietary supplements can also be extracts or concentrates, and may be found in many forms such as tablets, capsules, softgels, gelcaps, liquids, or powders….Whatever their form may be, DSHEA places dietary supplements in a special category under the general umbrella of ‘foods,’ not drugs, and requires that every supplement be labeled a dietary supplement.”

Functional Foods

According to Wikipedia, the term “functional food” was first used in Japan in the 1980s where there is a government approval process for functional foods called Foods for Specified Health Use. In searching PubMed for authoritative information, I found a review article that states the following:

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“Functional foods are similar in appearance to conventional foods; the former being consumed as part of the normal diet. In contrast to conventional foods, functional foods, however, have demonstrated physiological benefits and can reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions, including maintenance of gut health. When food is being cooked or prepared using ‘scientific intelligence’ with or without knowledge of how or why it is being used, the food is called ‘functional food’.”

Not surprisingly, I found tons of information on the web about functional foods, including things like raspberry drinks that claim to lower cholesterol. Rather than doing injustice to this topic by giving a couple of examples, here are links to a “hard core” scientific review to read, and a much “softer,” quick read that gives 10 examples worth knowing.

Dr. Oz: Wizard or Quack?

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As I mentioned earlier in the post, nutraceuticals is a big business in part due to several popular doctors praising their benefits, perhaps most famously, Dr. Mehmet Oz. If you’ve ever watched The Dr. Oz Show, you’ll already know that various kinds of foods and drinks are touted—dare I say over-hyped?—as providing near miraculous health benefits. Many of these supposed benefits are vanity-oriented, such as smoother skin or—most frequently—weight loss. For example, Dr. Oz episodes have alleged “a new silver bullet for weight loss,” while others promise “belly fat blasting supplements”—with goofy (to me) showmanship like that pictured above, which nevertheless gets loud applause from an enthusiastic audience who I’ll call “Ozophiles.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Dr. Oz’s over-the-top statements and theatrics aren’t always appreciated by his fellow faculty members at Columbia University or other physicians. In fact, this past April a group of 10 doctors wrote to Columbia urging it fire Dr. Mehmet Oz from his post as the vice chairman of the department of surgery. The letter is quoted by Bill Gifford of the New York Times as saying that ‘Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown distain for science and for evidence-based medicine [and>

manifested and egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments...’

Like most accusations, however, there are two sides to the story, and Gifford goes on to give—in my opinion—a fair and balanced account of this brouhaha, that’s worth reading if you’re interested or if you happen to be an Ozophile. Nevertheless, Dr. Oz subsequently admitted on Fox and Friends that he made a big mistake in how he described weight loss supplements: "I wish I'd never used the laudatory terms I used for weight loss supplements…[T>

hat was the big mistake I think we all acknowledge. I stopped doing that a long time ago, over a year ago."

But I digress (again)…

My point here is that while there are several examples of promising nutraceuticals such as glucoraphanin-enhanced broccoli, there are hundreds of others that are just capitalizing on people’s desire for healthier living. Distinguishing between the real-deal and fads can be difficult and the U.S. seems to lack a strong governing body to regulate and validate claims being made about nutraceuticals.

Are the FDA and FTC Overwhelmed or Underperforming?

Much to my surprise, I learned from an NIH website that this stalwart federal agency has recently made available a comprehensive searchable database of over 17,000 dietary supplements, to which hundreds of new ones are added each year. In my humble opinion this huge number reflects both long-standing world-wide interest in nutraceuticals, as well as modern society’s increasingly passionate quest for health and well-being. It also demonstrates a collective desire for quick and easy ways to achieve a healthy lifestyle through consumption of already enhanced, off-the-shelf products.

In any case, this huge and rapidly growing database raises questions around which agencies do what, so to speak, regarding safety and truth in product claims on packaging, in print media advertisements, and in never ending (and annoying) pop-up ads. Clearly this responsibility falls on the bureaucratic shoulders, if you will, of the FDA and FTC in the US. The question is whether or not these agencies can and are keeping up with the claims being made.

The aforementioned FDA website has FAQs that provide authoritative answers to these questions—and more, which are worth a quick read if you’re interested. There is more verbiage that basically attempts to carve out what exactly each agency is responsible for, and explains that they work together closely. I’m sure this is done to some extent, but it leaves plenty of bureaucratic “gray area” where things fall through the cracks so to speak. Needless to say, and since law firms thrive on class action suits, this morass lends itself to legalistic enterprise. I found a downloadable six-page pdf that gives an on-point synopsis from a law group entitled Gray Zone between FDA and FTC Nutraceutical Regulation.

Finally, you can check out a shorter, more readable piece by Fox News cleverly entitled The skinny on FDA regulation of dietary supplements.

I hope you’ve found these comments to be of some interest, especially if you use, or are thinking of using one of these products. If you have a favorite nutraceutical, dietary supplement, or functional food, please share below. I’d love to hear about the legitimate products that are working for you as we all strive for a healthier lifestyle.

7 years ago
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