Written by Dr Robert Verkerk
Find out how nutraceuticals first evolved and are now a booming industry bringing the power of plants to a shelf near you.
While pharma engaged in intensive research and developments on new, patented drugs, and was forced to spend more and more money on both safety and efficacy trials required by licensing authorities, its earlier research on nutrients was largely abandoned. The companies continued to manufacture and sell vitamins and minerals, and the one-a-day multi-vitamin and –mineral supplement became the norm on many a breakfast table. These products, like their counterparts today, were seen largely as daily insurance for the prevention of deficiency diseases like scurvy, beriberi, pellagra and rickets.
The rise of nutraceuticals
But during the 1960s and ‘70s, an aspiring group of scientists, doctors, naturopaths, hippies and all-round natural health nuts—basking in the new-found freedom of the flower power generation—decided it was time to take this work out of mothballs and bring products to market. These individuals went on to establish some of the first US food/dietary supplement companies—or nutraceutical companies, as they are commonly referenced in the USA. Many of these are still in existence today in the USA, some of which trade in Europe and beyond. Not only were these nutraceuticals marketed as a means of preventing deficiency diseases, they were also seen as an alternative to pharmaceuticals. The products were purportedly natural and were promoted as working with the body, hence few or no side effects.
As the nutraceutical industry developed, it took a greater interest in other healthcare traditions, such as Ayurveda and Unani from the Indian subcontinent, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Kampo from Japan. These traditions were of course not reliant on synthetics, nature-identical or otherwise. They used a diverse range of naturally sourced ingredients, especially from plants, but also ones derived from microorganisms, fungi, minerals, animal organs, seaweeds and the like.
Increasingly, the US nutraceutical industry took on-board elements from both the East and the West. This represented the start of the East-West fusion phase of the natural products industry—one that is still very much alive and well today.
While the nutraceutical industry continued to grow in the USA during the 1970s and ‘80s, Europe quietly continued much as it had before. Pharmaceuticals became the primary choice of most when it came to treating diseases and infections, while simple multi-vitamins and -minerals, cod liver oil and other essential nutrients were available and widely used to maintain general health, and prevent deficiency diseases. Where natural product traditions were existent prior to the pharmaceutical boom, these traditions continued and evolved, but were seen as appropriate only for minor ailments, the serious stuff being the sole domain of by-now Big Pharma, and its ‘miracle drugs’.