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Nutraceuticals: understanding the function and benefits of nutritional supplements

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13 min read
AUTHOR: Stef Bottinelli
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Biological Healthcare Engineering Concept

The nutraceuticals and nutritional supplements market has been booming in the last few years.

According to statistics, the global dietary supplements market was valued at over $163 billion in 2022, and it’s forecasted to reach $350.96bn by 2032. Although these figures vary according to which market insights agency you listen to, there’s no doubt that this sector is growing exponentially and consumers are relying more and more on nutraceuticals to improve their health and performance.

The UK supplements market is currently valued at £520 million, up 17% in the 2017-2022 period. According to the Food Standards Agency, 48% of adults in the UK take supplements, with 38% taking them daily, says Mintel.

The most popular nutritional supplements include multivitamins, vitamin C, fish oils, vitamin D – which has received a boost since the pandemic – iron and vitamin B. Probiotics have also become popular, with more and more people becoming aware of the gut-brain connection.

Are nutritional supplements for everyone?

Many dietitians, nutritionists and GPs believe that nutrients should come directly from food, and with the right diet, there’s no need for supplements, however busy lives and the cost of living crisis often prevent us from having a nutritionally sound eating regime.

“When we look at the general needs of the population we do hope that most people may be able to eat in a way that provides all of their nutritional requirements, however when we take into account people’s lifestyle, working, reliance on convenience foods – also those of us who are living on a tight budget – it’s very unlikely that people are able to meet all of their nutritional requirements on a daily basis through their diet,” says Sophie Medlin, registered Dietitian, Chair for the British Dietetic Association for London and co-founder of nutritional supplement brand Heights. “I think it’s really important to consider the potential benefits of nutritional supplements and nutraceuticals to support a well-balanced diet and really importantly, anyone who’s cutting out any food groups from their diet, such as dairy, animal products, etc, needs to consider supplementation. In my opinion it would be very useful for food banks and other places, where people are getting food where they are not able to make necessarily the most healthful choice about their diet, to make nutritional supplements available to those individuals.

During the pandemic, the Government recommended taking vitamin D as studies found that it boosts antiviral defences against some respiratory viruses. Sunlight helps to make vitamin D naturally, but with the UK – along with Ireland and Iceland – receiving the least amount of hours of sun in Europe, many Brits have a vitamin D deficiency. But that’s not the only nutrient we seem to lack in our diet in Britain.

“The most common deficiencies we’ve seen are B vitamin deficiencies, these can be linked back usually to reduced intake of animal products, like meat and dairy, in the diet. We’ve seen more vitamin B12 deficiencies and thiamine deficiencies – which are really important for energy and people may be experiences things like brain fog and other symptoms that can easily be linked back to B12 deficiencies,” explains Medlin. “I regularly recommend omega 3 supplements to my patients who are not having enough oily fish in their diet. I also often recommend B vitamin supplements to those who are reducing animal products,” she adds.“We often recommend vitamin D to everybody as well as vitamin K2 to those who are at risk and we’re seeing far more peripheral deficiency such as iodine deficiency, and multiple B vitamin deficiency within our practice these days. As people’s diets evolve we are seeing vitamin deficiencies that used to be uncommon as becoming more and more common as our food supply chain adjusts and changes with time, but also as our dietary habits adjust and adapt to various different social pressures and ethical considerations.”

However, despite the prevalence of some deficiencies, not everyone needs or should take a supplement. “I think what’s really important to recognise is that multivitamins and vitamin products in general are not right for everybody and taking supplements isn’t necessarily benign,” says Sophie. “So some people who have a specific medical problem or take any medications need to speak to a pharmacist or their GP before they start on any nutritional supplement at all – or a dietitian. So it’s definitely not a one size fits all when it comes to nutritional supplements.”

Yet, despite not always needing them, it seems consumers can’t get enough of added nutritional supplements and the food industry is happy to oblige, continuously launching products with added nutrients. “I notice lots of products now being fortified with various vitamins and minerals so that they [brands] can make health claims,” explains Medlin. “For example drinks having added B vitamins, so they can make energy health claims. The risk with this is always that people end up taking too much of different things and causing themselves harm without realising that they were taking a product that was fortified with vitamins, and then taking a multivitamin and then taking another product on top of that. So whilst it’s interesting and exciting to see these markets develop and the understanding for the consumer, it can definitely cause people harm and it’s not a particularly good way of doing things.” I have certainly been guilty of this. As a regular taker of probiotics and a lover of fermented foods and drinks, I have accidentally overdosed on the stuff, not thinking that drinking kombucha, eating tempeh, and popping the supplement all in one day, would not help my digestive system, but rather have the opposite effect.

It’s also not just about what we supplement our diet with but in which form we take nutraceuticals. “I’m very anti gummy supplements,” says Sophie. “The main ingredient in it will always be a binder, or filler, or sugar or even non-nutritive sugar – like sugar alcohols – which cause gut health problems. They are products that can only contain a small amount of active ingredients and they are not effective in the long term for people, but they are very popular with consumers.”

So, is there a supplement Medlin couldn’t live without? “This is a cliché but I take both my Heights Smart supplement and my probiotic every day and I’m glad to be able to do that and I find they make a massive difference to me with ADHD and dyslexia and dyspraxia and the brain health Smart Supplement is very beneficial for my focus and concentration and also for my sleep.”

Good gut health: understanding prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics

With more and more people educating themselves about the link between the brain and gut, probiotics have been enjoying huge popularity in the last few years.

Dr Megan Rossi, a clinician and gut health expert, founded The Gut Health Doctor in 2017 and soon after she launched Bio&Me, a line of granola, muesli, porridge and yoghurts targeting good gut health. She explains the difference between, prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics: Prebiotics are the fertiliser for those good microorganisms in your gut. Generally speaking, if you’re getting a good diverse range of plants in your diet (including legumes and wholegrains) which naturally contain prebiotics then a prebiotic supplement is not typically needed. All our gut-loving Bio&Me products are a great source of prebiotics, and allow us to say our products are officially ‘good for the gut’.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that have been associated with health benefits. There are thousands of different types and each different type does different things. Taking one particular probiotic is not going to cure all, they are indication-specific, kind of like medications. Fermented food like live yoghurt, sauerkraut and kimchi is a tasty way to enjoy adding more microbes to your diet.”

Recently there’s been much talk about postbiotics too, although there seems to be a bit of confusion about what they actually do, or are for that matter. “Postbiotics are those beneficial chemicals or by-products that the bacteria (or probiotics) produce when they are fed (including prebiotics), which have associated benefits,” says Dr Rossi. “This explains why you tend to find postbiotics in fermented food, like a Bio&Me live yoghurt. Although taking a postbiotic supplement is great in theory, the research is currently lacking, so best to stick to food sources for the time being.”

Just like every other supplement, probiotics aren’t beneficial to everyone. “We don’t have any strong evidence that people who have generally good gut health or don’t have any gut health issues should be taking probiotics,” says Sophie Medlin, “However when we consider the environment that we live in now and how different it is to how we’ve evolved we are noticing people’s gut microbiome being very different to what we would hope it would be for general health and those who struggle to eat a very varied diet including multiple different plants – we recommend 30 different plants a week – would probably benefit from a probiotic supplement.”

Dr Megan Rossi is of the same opinion: “Probiotic supplements aren’t for everyone, and some types may indeed exacerbate gut symptoms like bloating. Generally speaking, if you’re in good health, the evidence for taking a probiotic at this stage is actually pretty weak. If there is something in particular that you’re aiming to manage, for example, a gut symptom or a health condition, then, in some cases, it may be advisable.”

When it comes to gut health, it’s important to pay attention to one’s body, and recognise the symptoms of gastrointestinal issues. “Anyone who struggles with bloating, abdominal discomfort, diarrhoea, constipation, excess gas – even belching – may benefit from a probiotic supplement. If these symptoms are new for you, it’s very important that you see a doctor rather than self-medicate with probiotics, because there may be a more serious underlying problem,” explains Medlin.

It’s important to bear in mind that not all probiotics are the same. “It all comes down to your specific condition and whether there is any evidence for a particular type of probiotic,” says Dr Rossi. “It’s also worth recognising that different probiotics do different things and therefore have different indications. It’s like medication – you wouldn’t take a painkiller to improve your cholesterol. There is no point taking one just for the sake of ‘good gut health’ – there is no science to back that up. And if you think about it, [with] the amount of diversity and quantity that already exists in your gut, taking one to ‘top up’ the number in your gut is equivalent to adding a drop in the ocean.”

With so many different strains of bacteria and the myriad of brands on the market, it can be confusing for consumers to choose the right probiotic for any gut symptoms they might be experiencing. “Probiotics have evolved now into a world where we can be much more tailored and specific with the strains that we are using for specific purposes so it’s really helpful for a consumer to understand exactly what symptoms they are hoping probiotics would target and take some guidance on which specific strains and products would be helpful for them,” explains Sophie. “Of course this isn’t particularly accessible to everybody for that reason, [for] someone in the general population that doesn’t have the ability to do some further research it’s a good idea to take a broad spectrum probiotic – seven strains or more – and to try and look for one that’s delivered directly to you rather than one that’s sat on shelves for a while, because that will significantly affect the live bacteria that remains in the product.”

For Megan Rossi, before deciding to take probiotics, it’s important to think about whether there’s any evidence of the symptoms that one might be experiencing, by doing research, reading up about what microbes have shown benefits, what their effective dose is, what the reliable brands on the market are, how they should be consumed, and how long it would take to see a benefit.

Pills vs food

Those who struggle to take pills could benefit from taking some foods and beverages which are either naturally good sources of probiotics, such as kimchi, kombucha and tempeh, or are fortified. These days there are many good products on the market, such as Fhirst, a line of sugar-free, flavoured sodas packed with active cultures and plant-fibre, MIM Habits’ range of bread loaves containing postbiotics and Bio&Me prebiotic granola, muesli, porridge and yoghurts. However, it’s important to be vigilant when it comes to fortified food and drinks, according to Megan Rossi. “Despite some food products showcasing the inclusion of ‘PRObiotics’ (live cultures), there are sadly a few reasons why this is misleading: 1 – probiotic strains are very specific, as each strain does different things. Having a random probiotic in a cereal simply hasn’t been shown to help when looking at gut health benefits, even if it does ‘survive’ the acidic stomach. 2 – the money spent on putting these ‘probiotics’ into cereal products, for instance, will usually mean compromising on quality for the rest of the ingredients, so they can still achieve a lower price point. 3 – to help the bacteria survive in an ‘artificial’ environment like cereal they often need to add in other things such as saturated fat, sugars and food additive emulsifiers… which somewhat contradicts the gut health goal.”
Dr Rossi is keen to point it out that whilst these foods are not ‘bad’, it’s important not to expect them to do wonders for one’s gut health. Megan and Sophie agree that eating 30 different types of plants a week (including spices and herbs) can help the microbiome, so unless there are some underlying conditions, those without any gastrointestinal issues can benefit from a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains.

The future of nutraceuticals

Much research is taking place at the moment to study adaptogens and nootropics that benefit human health, such as mushrooms, herbs and roots. Omega 3, and polyphenols are also big trends, and with so much research into the microbiome, the pre, pro and postbiotics sector is only going to grow bigger. “I think the gut health market is an exciting and fast-moving market at the moment,” says Sophie Medlin. “We are seeing the general consumer understanding more about probiotics, prebiotics and even postbiotics, which I think is exciting and innovative. I think we are going to continue to see women’s health market expand and develop over the next few years which is much needed and I’m excited for both of those markets to develop and become more prominent and to see how that leads to product development.”

Nutraceuticals for sports and active nutrition are also seeing a huge growth, with more and more people using nutritional supplements to improve their performance, speed up recovery, tackle inflammation and support bone and joint health. Focus is also on nutraceuticals that help improve the health of older people. With the average lifespan for men and women increasing, individuals want to stay healthy and active for longer, and with all the advances being made in the sector, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

Connect, inspire and innovate with those shaping the future of nutrition at the Inspiring Nutrition event

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