Nutraceuticals or Functional Foods


Nutrition research has resulted in an increased awareness world-wide that disease prevention and improved health can be accomplished by means of dietary change. It is now realised that food does not only have a nutritional function but that it also plays a disease prevention role. This has lead to the development of Nutraceuticals, also called Functional Foods which can be defined as follows:

“Foods which provide enhancement to health or performance through the addition of ingredients that they would not otherwise contain, or the fortification of ingredients already present.”

The purpose of Nutraceuticals is to maintain or improve key functional aspects of the human body, such as:

  • digestive systems
  • immune system
  • cardiovascular system
  • dental health
  • bone strength

The result is the improvement of general health and well-being. Prof. Fergus Clydesdale, University of Massachusetts, U.S.A. made the following statement: “We are on the verge of creating a new paradigm in public health that we have never experienced before”.

The ideal would be to consume foods which contain beneficial ingredients. We know that generally this does not happen in practice. The diets of hundreds of millions of people in both developed and and developing countries are deficient in one or more nutrients. This is the result of many factors, including lifestyle and monitory constraints. Enrichment or supplementation is a practical solution.

The Market For Functional Foods

Japan took the lead in the development and promotion of functional foods and the market was estimated at $6 billion in 1995. America followed and the turnover is now over $10 billion.

It is difficult to give a figure for the South African market. However, following the mandatory nutrient enrichment of staples such as maize meal and bread following the compulsory iodation of salt and Vitamin D enrichment of margarine, one can expect the awareness and demand for Nutraceuticals to increase.

One interesting comment that has been made is that, in view of rising medical costs, the consumer would have to take greater responsibility for his/her own health. Disease prevention is, therefore, becoming more important than disease cure.

Functional foods are varied. On the one hand we have existing products which have been supplemented while on the other end of the range we may get totally new products based on an ingredient, the functionality of which has been unknown up to now.

It is extremely important that high ethical standards are implemented in product development and marketing otherwise the potential of Nutraceuticals could be ruined.

Important Nutrients Involved In Nutraceuticals

Every nutrient has a specific function as can be seen from the following table:

Ingredient Health benefit
Fibres Cancer prevention, reducing cholesterol
Bacteria Improved gut flora
Vitamins Prevention of deficiency disease
Minerals Prevention of deficiency disease
Unsaturated fatty acids Prevention of cardio-vascular disease
Antioxidants Cancer prevention
Olligosaccharides Dental health
Proteins Improved immunological response

Many foods inherently contain ingredients with health benefits. Certain vegetable oils are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, rooibos and honeybush herbal teas contain antioxidants (phenolic compounds) while tomato contains lycopene which lowers the risk of prostate carcinogenesis. Beneficial bacterial flora, present in certain foods, will protect the body from the proliferation of pathogenic organisms, which may precipitate disease when the body’s resistance is low.

Regulatory Aspects

Any nutritional or health claim (i.r.o. Nutraceuticals) must be base on scientific principles to guarantee validity, safety, efficiency and trust. The consumer must have confidence in these products and consumer information and education is paramount in obtaining the necessary trust for scientific findings. It is especially important that correct health claims are made and that health authorities, in consultation with industry, institute appropriate labelling regulations.

Although difficult to achieve, international consensus on the definition, composition and labelling of Nutraceuticals is important especially in view of cross-border trade and WTO agreements.

A Nutraceutical is a food and should be legislated as such (and not be classified as a drug).


Nutraceuticals or Functional Foods can play an important role in health and nutrition and marketing development opportunities exist for these products. Apart from disease prevention, Nutraceuticals can play an important role in disease management and therapy. Nutraceuticals must, however, be based on scientific evidence and the consumer must be protected and assisted by appropriate legislation and information.

F.A.C.S. Scientific Director. 2009.