A new medical journal review has suggested that redefining and regulating products known as nutraceuticals could provide benefits to patient care and even prevent medical conditions from becoming serious enough to require drug-based treatment.
The article was published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology by Drs Ettore Novellino and Antonello Santini of the University of Napoli Federico II in Italy.
They stated that there are many nutraceuticals with proven efficacy and health benefits and, if these could be substantiated by clinical data and clearly regulated, they could become powerful tools for health organisations.
In the review, a nutraceutical was defined as "the phytocomplex of a vegetable or the pool of secondary metabolites from an animal. Both are concentrated and administered in a pharmaceutical form and are capable of providing beneficial health effects, including the prevention and/or treatment of a disease".
However, the authors noted that such products would require a proper and unequivocal definition if they are to be more widely used.
"Nutraceuticals, in the collective imagination of the consumer, tend to be confused and wrongly identified with many other products available on the market on the basis of potential health benefits," said Dr Novellino.
Indeed, their research found that many are confused with more common health supplements and fortified food products, which they are not.
The report authors said they would like to see clinical studies conducted to assess the safety and efficacy of nutraceuticals and to have standardised regulations brought in for their use, including separate classification from food supplements and pharmaceuticals, as well as healthcare information on their labels.
Were this to happen, they added that the products could be used "beyond the diet, but before the drugs" to aid patients who are suffering from ill health but are not yet eligible for conventional pharmaceutical drugs.
Dr Santini concluded that a regulatory system similar to the one for drugs could aid both patients and healthcare providers while safeguarding against the false advertising of supplements and food products.
It may be that pharmacists and those in the pharmaceutical industry see increasing interest in nutraceuticals as healthcare providers seek new ways to treat patients. These products could also produce fewer side-effects than drugs, making them potentially useful in today's overmedicated society.