If you’re up on health and nutrition trends, you’ve probably heard the term ‘nutraceutical’ thrown around a lot lately—and you’re probably a little confused about what it actually means.
The term ‘nutraceutical’ was coined by Stephen De Felice, founder and chairman of the Foundation for Innovation in Medicine, in 1989. He described a nutraceutical as a “food, or parts of a food, that provide medical or health benefits.” Since then, the term has been used differently by different people because there isn’t one official or standard definition.
Generally, though, nutraceuticals as we know them today are supplements made from health-promoting foods (often called ‘functional foods’) or their components. “Nutraceuticals are by and large produced by sophisticated manufacturing processes,” explains Ali Webster, R.D., Ph.D., associate director of Nutrition Communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation. Through this process, the nutrients found in certain foods are isolated or concentrated to become the supplements we see on store shelves.
“We usually find these nutraceuticals in tablets, capsules, or powders, though some are also added to foods,” says Webster. Take insoluble fiber, for example: This type of fiber, which is found in wheat bran, supports digestive health and regularity. You’ll find isolated insoluble fiber in its nutraceutical form as fiber supplements (usually powders) and even added to food products, like protein bars.
Nutraceuticals can support health and “fill nutrient gaps for people who don’t or can’t eat a wide variety of foods,” says Webster. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates them as dietary supplements, which means they’re not reviewed for safety and efficacy like drugs are, and can’t claim to be treatments or cures for any conditions, explains Webster. (They also can’t be called ‘medicinal foods,’ since the term ‘medicinal’ implies the food is being used as a drug.)
Some nutraceuticals, like curcumin (the active compound in the spice turmeric), have demonstrated effectiveness in easing the symptoms of some health issues, like digestive conditions. But since they’re considered supplements and don’t have the FDA approval medicines have, they can’t be marketed like medications would be.
Still, your doctor or dietitian can help you find a nutraceutical supplement to support anything from gut health to brain function. Just do your homework before adding a nutraceutical supplement to your routine. For example, “St. John’s wort can speed the breakdown of many drugs,” says Webster.
Since nutraceuticals are regulated as foods and not medicines, their manufacturing, packing, and labeling are also regulated differently, explains Joseph Feuerstein, M.D., director of integrative medicine at Stamford Hospital and associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University. All dietary supplement companies are supposed to follow GMPs (good manufacturing practices) set by the FDA, but Feuerstein recommends turning to reputable brands who have their supplements quality-tested by a third party.
Interest in nutraceuticals is still emerging (though growing rapidly), so experts believe more research is necessary to fully understand their potential and safety. But many manufacturers are now publishing clinical research using proprietary and standardized ingredients (which have been shown to be most effective), so look out for a lot of exciting nutraceutical progress soon!