Nu Kids on the Block: Understanding the Recent Boom in Nutraceuticals

Jun 29, 2020

They’re one of the newest trends to emerge in the healthy living sector, but what are nutraceuticals, how do they work, and why are they suddenly so hot?

What nutraceuticals are: You’ve probably heard of nutraceuticals, but you wouldn’t be alone if you didn’t know what they are. It’s a broad umbrella term – describing any product derived from food sources that provides extra health benefits beyond just basic nutritional value – and opinions differ about what falls under the nutraceuticals banner. For instance, there are some who argue they should be differentiated from supplements.

In fact, there is no clearer definition than the one provided by the man who first coined the term “nutraceutical” in 1989, Dr Stephen De Felice. According to De Felice, they are “a food (or a part of food) that provides medical or health benefits, including the prevention and or treatment of a disease”.

The market is set to boom: The global nutraceuticals market size was valued at US$272.35 billion in 2016. It’s set to skyrocket to US$578.23 billion by 2025, according to the Nutraceuticals Market Analysis report. Asia-Pacific accounted for the biggest slice of the nutraceutical pie (44.3 per cent) in 2016 and is projected to witness the fastest growth over the forecast period, due to increasing product demand in India, China and South Korea.

Why they’re hot right now: What’s driving the growing global demand for nutraceuticals? According to the Nutraceuticals Market Analysis report, increasing risk of diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and cholesterol plus high healthcare costs are fuelling the trend. There’s also growing consumer awareness about the benefits of consuming healthy foods and a turn away from synthetics towards natural products.

“There’s a trust failure at the moment with big pharmaceutical companies and the associated industries they work with,” adds Tony Crimmins, nutraceuticals developer and CEO of Abundant Natural Health. And according to Fiona Tuck, nutritional medicine practitioner and author of The Forensic Nutritionist, people are also after quick and easy ways to boost their health. “They want to know what they can take, rather than what they have to change,” she observes.

Spirulina - Nutraceauticals

How they’re being offered to the market: The term nutraceutical is open to interpretation; however, broadly speaking, it encompasses dietary supplements (for example botanicals, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and enzymes), functional foods (those containing carotenoids, dietary fibres, fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, prebiotics and probiotics) and functional beverages (energy drinks, sports drinks and functional juices, for instance).

According to a 2012 paper, the Role of nutraceuticals in human health, nutraceuticals “may range from isolated nutrients, herbal products, dietary supplements and diets to genetically engineered ‘designer’ foods and processed products such as cereals, soups and beverages”. Drilling it down further, the paper says nutraceuticals can be categorised into six key food sources: dietary fibre, probiotics, prebiotics, polyunsaturated fatty acids, antioxidant vitamins, polyphenols and spices.

Their claim to health fame: The health and wellbeing benefits of nutraceuticals are wide ranging. Depending on the product and ingredients, they may be used to improve health, delay the ageing process, prevent or treat chronic diseases, increase life expectancy or support the structure or function of the body.

How they work their magic: “It depends on the individual product,” says Fiona. “For instance, if you were taking a collagen supplement that may help with collagen production, and in the case of plant compounds we know they can affect gene expression.

According to 2014 paper New Concepts in Nutraceuticals as Alternative for Pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals “might be involved in a wide variety of biological processes, including activation of signal transduction pathways, antioxidant defenses, gene expression, cell proliferation, differentiation and preservation of mitochondrial integrity”.

Tea - Nutraceauticals

Where they could improve: Not all nutraceuticals are created equally and some are better than others. “It comes down to the formulation of the product and how the ingredients are extracted as to whether they retain the efficacy and activity of the compound,” says Fiona.

While nutraceutical products are often perceived as more ‘natural’ and less likely to cause side effects than pharmaceuticals, they aren’t always risk-free and can be subject to less regulatory scrutiny. “There are some nutraceuticals that are dangerous because the people who are putting them out there don’t actually test them or understand what they’re creating,” says Tony. His advice: if you’re thinking about taking a nutraceutical, chat to your doctor first to avoid any interactions, particularly if you’re on medication.

Be an ingredients sleuth: If you’re keen to develop your own nutraceutical product, remember that the latest and greatest ingredients aren’t enough – it comes down to the quality and efficacy of the ingredients you source. “There are products out there that use cheap filler and bulking agent. For instance, collagen peptides may have added maltodextrin so it’s cheaper for the manufacturer, but then you don’t get as much benefit from product,” says Fiona.

Prioritise good science: Another tip for would-be nutraceutical entrepreneurs: make sure your product is science-backed. “Align yourself with an educational institution or people who have scientific knowledge in the area,” advises Tony. “Also be patient and don’t try to force a product out, because it takes time.”

Doing ongoing research is also a smart move. “We’re in a continuous trial phase, in the sense that we never stop collecting data about our products,” says Tony.

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