- Chris Woolston, M.S.
- Posted March 11, 2013
What are nutraceuticals?
Remember the kids' book Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory ? One of Willie Wonka's most amazing inventions was a machine that packed an entire feast into a single piece of gum. When young Violet Beauregard stole one of the pieces and shoved it into her mouth, she could taste succulent roast beef followed by a steaming bowl of tomato soup, a baked potato, and a blueberry pie. The gum had a few bugs, though. Violet promptly turned into a giant blueberry, and the Oompa Loompas rolled her away to the juicer.
Scientists have yet to perfect the technology of four-course chewing gum, but nutraceuticals may be the next best thing. "Nutraceuticals" is a fancy term for a wide range of pills and capsules that contain the essence of disease-fighting foods. Instead of munching a stalk of broccoli -- a vegetable that's thought to help ward off cancer -- you can now pop 500 milligrams (mg) of broccoli extract in the form of a pill. And if you want the flavonoids found in wine (they're antioxidants) but don't want the alcohol, you can always substitute grape seed pills.
Should I be taking nutraceuticals?
Nutraceuticals can be a handy source of nutrients (and there's virtually no chance that you'll turn into a giant berry), but not all of them provide fiber or anything close to the health benefits of whole foods. For one thing, since the federal government doesn't regulate herbs and supplements as it does prescription and over-the-counter drugs, herbal remedies don't have to go through rigorous testing or display labels with consumer warnings. Scientists aren't always certain which compounds are the active ingredients -- or even if the nutraceuticals contain the listed ingredients. For another, it's possible that some of these vital substances work only within the natural milieu formed by the other nutrients in foods. And finally, there's no guarantee that key compounds will survive the transformation from real foods to pills.
Despite these uncertainties, some nutraceuticals might be worth a try. Here's a look at the pluses and minuses of the most popular foods-in-a-pill.
- Soy: Many people haven't discovered the joys of tofu (even after repeated tasting), but they can still cash in on the many health benefits soy offers. Early research suggests that soy protein may cut cholesterol levels significantly, though more research is needed. Keep in mind that most soy pills lack the blend of nutrients found in soy protein powder and probably can't lower cholesterol dramatically. In fact, in 2006 the American Heart Association conducted a review of 22 studies and determined that soy protein with isoflavones has minimal or no benefit on cholesterol levels.
Soy pills generally contain nothing but isoflavones, estrogen-like compounds with remarkable powers of their own. Most notably, they may be able to help prevent breast cancer by muting the natural effects of estrogen (although many researchers advise against their use, saying that it isn't clear whether they might actually mimic estrogen and thus increase cancer risk). Soy pills may help ease some menopausal symptoms, though study results vary: A study at Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that 34 mg of isoflavones each day eased hot flashes that resulted from of a sudden drop in estrogen. However, a study of post-menopausal women aged 60 and over that was reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that taking soy supplements had no positive effect on cholesterol levels, bone mineral density, or cognitive function. Researchers think this may mean that soy pills are more likely to be effective, if at all, for women in the early stages of menopause.
- Garlic: This pungent bulb may be almost as popular in pills as it is in pasta. Many people take garlic-powder supplements to lower their cholesterol levels, a practice backed up by several scientific studies. But not all experts are convinced that garlic pills can rein in high cholesterol. Researchers at Stanford University gave 192 patients with moderately high cholesterol various forms of garlic or a placebo over a period of 6 months. They found that neither raw garlic nor garlic supplements had any effect on cholesterol levels.
Even if garlic proves to be a bust at lowering cholesterol, there may be other reasons to take it. Garlic definitely inhibits the kind of blood clotting that can lead to heart attacks. (In fact, it's so effective in preventing clots that you shouldn't take it before surgery or combine large amounts of it with aspirin, warfarin, or other blood-thinners.) And according to a report in the journal Hypertension, garlic powder may cause a healthy drop in blood pressure, especially for people with mild hypertension. Finally, studies in laboratory animals suggest that garlic extract may be able to help prevent cancers of the breast, skin, colon, and prostate. A person would have to eat a large handful of cloves every day to match the garlic intake of these lab animals, so anyone with an interest in close human contact might want to consider a garlic supplement instead.
- Tomatoes: Harvard researchers put tomatoes in the spotlight a few years ago when they announced that men who ate a lot of spaghetti sauce, pizza, and stewed tomatoes seemed to have some protection against prostate cancer. Other studies have suggested that tomatoes may also be able to ward off cancers of the pancreas, bladder, cervix, and digestive tract. Researchers trace the cancer-fighting properties of tomatoes to lycopene, a strong antioxidant that's now available in a pill. However, more recent studies have cast doubt on the preventative effects of tomatoes and lycopene. More research is needed.
A 2003 study on rats showed that tomatoes offered superior protection against prostate cancer than lycopene supplements alone. Perhaps just as compelling a reason to eat the fruit: A bottle of 30 capsules costs about $12, enough to buy a bushel of real tomatoes.
- Cranberries: Until recently, the idea that cranberry juice could prevent urinary-tract infections was nothing but folk wisdom. Today it has science on its side. A Harvard University study of 153 elderly women found that cranberry juice cut the risk of urinary-tract infection by 40 percent. Numerous other studies have shown a similar preventative effect. Scientists think it is a flavonoid in cranberries that blocks the adherence of certain bacteria to bladder and vaginal cells.
Women who don't like the taste of cranberry juice might consider trying a cranberry supplement. A preliminary study from Weber State University suggests that these pills really can fight off infections. The researchers found that women taking a placebo (a dummy pill) every day for three months were more than twice as likely to develop a urinary tract infection as women taking cranberry pills. Those subjects took 400 mg of cranberry extract each day, far less than the 12 to 15 capsules per day recommended on many labels.
- Grapes: These fruits are rich in flavonoids, powerful antioxidants that protect the heart. That at least partly explains why regular wine-drinkers run a lower risk of heart attacks. But even teetotalers can enjoy the benefits of flavonoids. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that the antioxidants in purple grape juice are just as effective as aspirin in preventing artery-clogging blood clots.
If you'd rather get your flavonoids from a pill than out of a glass, you can always try grape-seed supplements. The supplements are packed with the flavonoid proanthocyanidin, but they lack the rich blend of antioxidants found in grapes, grape juice, and wine. There's another reason to consider a glass of wine with dinner, instead of a capsule of grape-seed extract: Experts suspect that the alcohol in wine -- in moderate doses -- may be just as good for your heart as the antioxidants.
- Broccoli: Broccoli and its close relatives carry a compound called sulforaphane that triggers the release of cancer-fighting enzymes in the body. Even when removed from the vegetable and crammed into a supplement, sulforaphane seems to have formidable anti-cancer powers. Laboratory studies have found that rats fed broccoli extract are far less likely to develop tumors than rats on a regular diet. And a study from the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia found that broccoli pills boosted the activity of key anti-cancer enzymes by an average of 7 percent in patients at high risk of colon cancer.
A 500 mg dose of broccoli extract can provide about 200 mg of sulforaphane, about what you'd get from a regular serving of broccoli. Of course, the vegetable also provides fiber and vitamins that the supplements completely lack. So if you want sulforaphane, broccoli -- not to mention cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and bok choy -- is still the best way to go.
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