A medical food is defined by the US Food and Drug Administration as "a food which is formulated to be consumed or administered enterally under the supervision of a physician and which is intended for the specific dietary management of a disease or condition for which distinctive nutritional requirements, based on recognisable scientific principles, are established by medical evaluation". [My emphasis]
In Australia, we have foods classified as a "Food for Special Medical Purposes’ under Standard 2.9.5 of the Food Standards Code of Food Standards Australia New Zealand.
We are constantly bombarded with marketing claims and hype about so called "nutraceuticals" or "functional foods" or indeed "super foods" which will make us fitter, leaner, smarter, healthier, smarter and less susceptible to disease. So how to you separate the marketing spin from the real health enhancing foods?
What are we talking about?
nu·tra·ceu·ti·cal (ntr-st-kl) n. A food or naturally occurring food supplement thought to have a beneficial effect on human health.
functional food n (Cookery) a food containing additives which provide extra nutritional value Also called nutraceutical
Nutraceutical: A food or part of a food that allegedly provides medicinal or health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of disease. A nutraceutical may be a naturally nutrient-rich or medicinally active food, such as garlic or soybeans, or it may be a specific component of a food, such as the omega-3 fish oil that can be derived from salmon and other cold-water fish.
It seems to be human nature to search for the food, magic pill or indeed golden apple which will provide us with miraculous health and well being benefits. In the western world these is growing interest from consumers in herbal supplements, nutritional supplements and functional foods—'nutraceuticals'.
Eastern cultures will say many naturally occuring plants and remedies have been relied upon for centuries so "what's new?" What is bring these sorts of things mainstream is the almighty dollar.
Unfortunately though most of these foods are, unlike true medicinal drugs, largely unregulated. Most health claims accompanying these so called "super foods" are supported by limited investigations or indeed no research at all.
Figures about the size of the nutraceutical industry vary wildy from US$42 billion to over US$200 billion per year.
Whilst some would call the wide accessibility of these foods a good thing, others would describe them as "Frankenfoods" and lump them alongside GM crops as unnatural, evil and unecessary.
In their most "natural" state, nutraceuticals range from herbs such as echinacea and St John's wort through to oils from fish and flax seeds. But it doesn't stop there we can now buy milk and margarine that will lower your cholesterol and blood pressure! Don't like milk? Hey no problems you can drink calcium fortified orange juice instead!
Although new studies appear almost more frequently than new wonder foods, it has been estimated that less than 1% of products currently available are backed by any rigorous research.
Whilst the benefits of drinking green tea, taking fish oil and getting plenty of fibre are well known, the results are mixed or absent for many other popular functional foods and supplements.
Peversely too, despite evidence to the contrary some people persist in using products which have been shown not to work. For example, taking echinacea does not prevent the common cold but people still buy it by the bucketload!
The other danger for people who are on medications prescribed by their doctor are that the interactions of those drugs with some nutraceuticals is not well known or researched. For example grapefruit should not be taken by those also on blood thinning medication.
Perhaps the last words should be left to Vicki Bower's insightful article which inspired this post:
Until nutraceuticals are more routinely put through rigorous testing, and yield hard scientific data, it will be difficult to determine whether they work any better than placebos or the water of Lourdes.
Goiiji berries anyone?