What is a nutraceutical?
You are in a pharmacy. You see boxes of pills with evocative names lining up with the promise disguised as medicine to keep you healthy and you don’t know where or where to start. Don’t worry, it’s normal!
First, it is not innocent to see these packages flourish that clearly display their claim to the rank of drug because in products sold without a prescription, we try, with more or less success, to identify with the products that heal. Some of these products are now well installed in our homes. Undoubtedly, you are comfortable with the vitamins and minerals that complement a modern diet that is sometimes deficient in certain elements. Others seem more difficult to use. Medicinal plants, for example, which, without the enlightened advice of a phytotherapist, do not allow adequate use. And now a new wave of equally confusing products is coming onto the market: nutraceuticals.
They look like their elders and take the form of pills, but they come from the diet. Nutraceuticals have been able to take advantage of the craze for superfoods (fruits, vegetables, seafood,..) that are called functional foods from which they come to carve out a place of choice on the shelves. Indeed, a nutraceutical is nothing more than a more or less standardized extraction of a functional food sold in a medicinal form (pills, powders, syrups,..).
It would be simple if humans hadn’t changed their eating habits over time.
But are there rational reasons to use fruit and vegetable extracts to stay healthy? A priori none. Fruits and vegetables, to name but a few, have a complex composition that provides the human body with the elements it has learned, after millennia of coevolution, to use to promote its most subtle mechanisms of protection. It is also very well accepted that the consumption of fruits and vegetables is necessary to maintain good health.
The consumption of these functional foods is therefore more than justified and I can only advise you to consume them as often as possible. All this would be simple if humans had not changed their eating habits over time. Gastronomic pleasure and the notion of taste have profoundly evolved along with accessibility to diversity.
All these elements have gradually led humanity to turn away from a considerable number of food sources. For example, the number of plant species consumed has drastically decreased to favor only a very limited number of fruits and vegetables. Profound changes in agriculture and diet have led the fruits and vegetables still consumed to keep only a fraction of their genetic background through selection oriented towards economic aspects. We are now very far from the diet based on the picking of wild plants or even the family vegetable garden.
The diversity of our diet has become impoverished
Do you often eat fresh cranberries? Would you be able to recognize the taste of aronia, chicouté, camerises, wood tea or even blackcurrant and elderberry or plaquebière? What was the last time you consumed Card chard, oxalids, sorrel, dandelion, radish tops? And would you know how to cook them? In fact, this is just a simple observation. The diversity of our diet has become impoverished and if we have long believed that it has no impact on our health, it is clear that this is becoming less and less true. Nutraceuticals are therefore only one way among others to diminish this strange relationship that we have ended up developing with our food. They open the door to the possibility of overcoming the lack of diversity and reconnecting with the benefits that flow from it.
Nutraceuticals are tools for the prevention of certain modern diseases and are in fact only the consequence of our lifestyle habits. Metabolic syndrome (cascade of events that leads to type II diabetes), cognitive decline, cardiovascular diseases, probably a part of cancerous diseases, to name but a few, have gradually become the scourges of the Western world. Yet, if dietary supplements, medicinal plants and nutraceuticals are mixed on the stalls, they have absolutely not the same vocation. And it will probably be extremely difficult to navigate this abundance of boxes with very similar format, appearance and messages. Unlike medicinal plants, nutraceuticals have no therapeutic claims. All these products from food have a preventive vocation, they are intended for people who want to stay healthy as long as the year.
Sebastien Leonhart M.Sc
Phytonutrient Science Director Canada