The field of nutrition is forever evolving and new findings are surfacing all the time. One interesting development of late is nutraceuticals. If you haven’t heard the term before, do not fear. This article will take you through everything you need to know.
What are Nutraceuticals?
We all know that fruit and vegetables are healthy, and most people can understand that this is due to their high vitamin and mineral content. What is less known, is that these foods are high in a third group of nutrients called phytochemicals. Phytochemicals, or bioactive substances, are a diverse group of chemical compounds that have a role in maintaining our health. Each of the thousands of phytochemicals that exist, are unique and have an individual role in the body. They can participate in anything from gene regulation, enzyme expression, blood pressure and even have cancer interactions. When these bioactive substances are isolated from the food in which they are naturally found, and packaged at a high concentration in a pill or capsule, you have yourself nutraceuticals!
Understandably, these little power molecules excite dietitians to no end. Therefore, they have become a focal point of nutrition research, and the quest to identify and understand all the thousands of phytochemicals in food is well underway. Every now and then, when a new one is discovered, it gets extracted from its food source and sold in pill form for extravagant prices. These pills promise to perform the miracle of decreasing blood pressure, fighting diabetes, or whatever it is that particular nutrient does.
The problem is, it is not entirely correct to say that the bioactive substance, when consumed separate from their natural food source, will have the same effect.
Let’s Talk About Resveratrol
Resveratrol, a bioactive substance found in red wine, dark chocolate and cranberries, is thought to have a plethora of healthful effects. Most notable, is resveratrol’s ability to decrease blood pressure through vasodilation action. Now, this doesn’t mean eating a whole heap of chocolate and cranberries will cure your hypertension, it just means that, these foods contain a substance that may have a meaningful effect on blood pressure.
Health fanatics went wild for resveratrol! Researchers and food companies capitalised on this opportunity and turned the substance into a nutraceutical, available to you for only $40.00!
What nutraceutical companies fail to mention, however, is whether or not their capsule will have a meaningful effect on your health. Research says it won’t.
Most research involving resveratrol and other phytochemicals is performed In-vitro. This means that the bioactive substance is mixed with cells in a lab. This is how we study the effect of the phytochemical. However, we cannot liken a couple of cells in the petrie dish to the human body. We are far, far more complex than a couple of cells. We have livers, digestive tracts and circulation systems. All of which, the phytochemical has to battle through to get to our cells and perform its supposed function.
In-vitro research reveals that a concentration of about 5uM resveratrol is required for meaningful action on the cell. However, studies in humans show that the maximum concentration we can achieve is around .29uM. Our detoxification processes are just too efficient at removing high dose nutraceuticals from our blood, depriving us of their benefits. What we do get high concentrations of is detoxified metabolites that are far less bioactive than their original parent counterparts.
Another issue with the efficacy of nutraceuticals, is the context in which the nutrient is being consumed. Food is designed to help us extract its energy and nutrients. A pill, however, is not. Consuming the phytochemical in isolation as a nutraceutical, just does not have the same effect. Furthermore, food contains 1000’s of other nutrients and phytochemicals that all interact and work together to promote health. No single nutrient can work as efficiently without the help other. Therefore, I still advocate food over nutraceuticals.
Are Nutraceuticals Worth My Money?
There is no black and white answer to this question. Instead, you can utilise this information to formulate your own hypothesis surrounding this new nutrition fad. The research is forever evolving and the bottom line is, we just do not know enough about the complexity of both food and the human body to provide a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer on this topic, just yet.