Global Perspective for Nutraceuticals on the Food & Drink Marketplace
One thing health professionals will often tell their patients is that taking food supplements is not necessary for persons that keep to a healthy, balanced diet and exercise regularly. As a consequence, there is a pervading belief among consumers that food supplements are superfluous, because you can get all the nutrients you need from your diet.
This may certainly be the case for those who have a truly balanced diet. The reality shown by demographic data, however, is that nutrient deficiencies are becoming more prevalent in Western nations; this includes some Asian territories that are becoming more “westernized” as far as their diet is concerned.The causes for this are known: the increasing prevalence of fast food with too many simple carbohydrates; too little fruit, vegetables, and fiber in the overall diet; too little sun exposure; and too little physical exercise. All of these combining to increase malnutrition and, paradoxically obesity.
The old adage that we are what we eat still holds. Nowadays though, it is more difficult – and more expensive – to eat healthy food. On top of that, getting the full spectrum of essential nutrients out of one’s food by making the correct food choices is complicated enough to warrant a study course in nutrition science.
But even with a good education and a varied diet, some nutrients may still be in short supply locally because they are not present in large enough amounts in food due to soil quality or nutrient bioavailability.
Another reason for the occurrence of nutrient deficiencies may simply lie in individual food preferences like vegetarianism or veganism. Consumers deliberately avoiding certain nutrient sources because of lifestyle preferences are in fact evolving into a very specific target group for food supplements.
An example for a nutrient that is often lacking even in otherwise healthy individuals is vitamin D. It is present in some foods in very small amounts, and our bodies also synthesize it from precursors. Common knowledge is that ten minutes outdoors with just hands and face exposed is enough. However, current research indicates that, to get an adequate supply, a full-body exposure of at least thirty minutes per day is necessary. This is often not possible, especially not in the winter time in temperate climates. Add to that the copious use of sunscreen filtering out the UV light required for the conversion, and the result is widespread vitamin D deficiency even leading to a reoccurrence of rickets in the UK (and possibly other industrialized nations as well). Lack of vitamin D is also suspected to be at the root of neurodegenerative diseases and other non-communicable diseases like allergies or dermatitis.
Vitamin B12, naturally only available in meat products (with few exceptions), is chronically lacking in vegetarians and vegans. Other B vitamins may not be as drastically affected but are still shown to be in low supply, which has health consequences that may not be immediately connected to deficiency.
Other examples are nutrients that have relatively recently entered the food arena such as omega-3 fatty acids, and pre- and pro- probiotics. For many consumers, awareness of their importance is still lacking, as is awareness of the natural sources for them; therefore, they cannot be expected to make dietary choices with them in mind. Still, the overall importance to human health of polyunsaturated fatty acids in general and omega-3 fatty acids in particular is becoming increasingly obvious, while the many profound ways that probiotics and the gut microbiome affect our health are only beginning to be elucidated.
However, food supplements are not just about providing essential micronutrients. The health-promoting benefits of botanicals cannot be underestimated, or the importance of having concentrated versions of them available to people who do not want to eat a lot of, e.g., garlic, ginger, or curcumin, to mention only some of the most famous ones.
All of these examples point to the fact that supplementation with micronutrients and other health-promoting ingredients is becoming more crucial for the general population as dietary choices are becoming more limited, for whatever reason, and as deliberate lifestyle-related food avoidance strategies like vegetarianism and veganism are becoming more mainstream. Consumer education, especially of the latter groups, is crucial. The onus here is on healthcare professionals, some of whom may have to adjust their own understanding about the prevalence of nutrient deficiencies and the importance of food supplements to supply them.
In conclusion, the importance of the food supplement industry will only increase globally. Preventing nutrient deficiencies, after all, is much more preferable than leaning on healthcare systems when it comes to curing the symptoms.
Irene Wohlfahrt, MSc,
Senior Consultant at analyze & realize GmbH, Berlin, Germany