Nutraceuticals and functional food – blurring the line between food and drugs

Shopping is becoming very complicated. We often eat certain foods for the nutrients they contain such as whole grain cereals for fiber or dairy products for calcium. Sometimes nutrients that may be difficult to get are added to food – like B vitamins in flour, or Vitamin D in milk.

Recently the terms nutraceuticals and functional foods have been used to describe the growing number of products that blur the line between food and drugs. Health Canada, has proposed the following definitions: A nutraceutical is a product that comes from food but is generally sold in the form of a medicine.

A nutraceutical is demonstrated to have health benefits or provide protection against chronic disease such as flax seed oil or oat bran.  A functional food is similar in appearance to, or may actually be a conventional food. It is consumed as part of a usual diet and is demonstrated to have health benefits and/or reduce the risk of chronic disease. Examples of these products include: water with added vitamins, minerals or extracts, Omega 3 in eggs, sterols added to margarine, or probiotic cultures in yogurt.

While the classification and guidelines for these new products are under review, consumers should be wary. It is not easy to figure out which products have specific health benefits, for example, the Omega 3 found in fish oils (DHA and EPA) has been found to reduce the risk of heart attacks, lower blood triglycerides and are important parts of brain cells and the retina. But another type of Omega 3, called ALA, doesn’t protect the heart as much as DHA and EPABe cautious when shopping on the internet especially from sources outside Canada.

Always scrutinize marketing tactics like free trials, endorsements, blogs, or product reviews. It’s a good idea to check manufacturer’s health claims with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Before you pay top dollar for a nutritionally enhanced product, ask yourself if you can get the same nutrients from whole foods instead. For example, a fresh orange, has the same amount of Vitamin C as the Vitamin C that is added to many popular vitamin beverages and that fresh orange also contains beneficial minerals, fibre and  phytochemicals. Finally, consult your doctor if you are taking any of these products to reduce or manage a chronic disease. Because these products function like drugs, they may have serious interactions with medication you are taking.