Nutriceuticals, a term derived from the words 'nutrition' and 'pharmaceutical', describes a wide variety of foods ranging from cholesterol-busting spreads to friendly-bacteria yoghurt, which are all supposed to have specific health benefits.
There's nothing new about 'fortified foods' - vitamins and minerals have been added to breakfast cereals for many years - but the new generation of products are different because they've been developed to target particular problem areas. These 'functional foods' first hit the headlines in Britain in 1999 with the introduction of Benecol, which contains an ingredient called plant stenol ester, shown to lower blood cholesterol levels by an average of 10 per cent.
Now, however, there are over 100 functional foods on the European market, and more in the pipeline destined to join probiotic drinks such as Yakult, drinks enriched with calcium and cholesterol-lowering eggs.
The discovery that two cancer-fighting food components - sulforaphane and selenium - are far more powerful when combined, may also give rise to a new superfood. 'It opens up new possibilities for functional foods, food supplements or simply new guidelines for healthy eating,' says Dr Yongping Bao, senior researcher at the Institute of Food Research.
Controversial claims of nutriceuticals
Although it's acknowledged that some nutriceuticals deliver what they promise, some of the claims made about functional foods have caused controversy. A Which? report on the subject questioned whether many of the products offered any real advantages compared with more straightforward and cheaper alternatives. For example, while it acknowledged that 'energy' drinks may increase alertness, it argued that there was no evidence that they did so any more than a cup of coffee with sugar.
The Consumers Association is now calling for the law to be tightened so that claims about functional foods have to be substantiated before the product goes on sale. Says a spokesperson: 'Our stance on functional foods is that they are no substitute for a balanced diet.'
Are nutriceuticals for me?
So do you need to add nutriceuticals to your diet? Dr Wendy Doyle of the British Dietetic Association says that many of these foods do have clear benefits, provided they are used when they are needed and as recommended by the manufacturers. However, nutriceuticals aren't a substitute for eating properly, nor can they make up for a poor diet or an unhealthy lifestyle.
'What you have to remember is that these foods aren't a magic bullet,' says Dr Doyle. 'They're not a substitute for healthy eating and the first rule is to make sure that you have a healthy, balanced diet. Each of the functional foods is functional for a particular reason, not because they are an all-round healthy food.'
What nutriceuticals are on the shelves?
- Probiotics and prebiotics 'These include fermented milk aimed at improving intestinal bacteria, and for some people who suffer from upset stomachs they seem to work well,' Dr Doyle comments. 'However, if you don't suffer from indigestion, I'm not sure that they will do you a lot of good. Also, the benefits don't last for long, so you have to drink them every day.'
- Calcium-enriched drinks 'These can be very useful for people who don't eat dairy foods, although it's generally better for you to drink milk,' Dr Doyle says. 'Drinking milk or just having some on your cereal is also cheaper. However, if you can't tolerate milk, that's when these drinks come into their own.'
- Omega-3 products These include Nutribread for the Family and Columbus eggs. 'These are high in omega-3 fatty acids which potentially reduce cholesterol,' Dr Doyle explains. 'These are the oils which are usually found in fish, so they can be useful for people who don't eat fish.'
- Cholesterol-lowering spreads 'Spreads such as Benecol and Flora Pro.activ have a role to play as they are quite effective in lowering blood cholesterol,' says Dr Doyle. 'So If you have high blood cholesterol, it could be a good idea to use them as long as you do so as they are prescribed. If you don't have high blood cholesterol, there's no need to eat them.'