Paul A. Lachance

The editor of Food Technology has decided that the topic of nutraceuticals deserves a regular column. My suggestion was that leaders at the various institutions with recognized programs involving the study of nutraceuticals should rotate in writing such a column. I am privileged to lead off the series. The inauguration of this column also coincides with the formation of the Nutraceutical and Functional Foods Division of IFT, which already has more than 1,000 members.

The word nutraceutical, as coined by Stephen De Felice, a physician, already is an accepted dictionary term. The forerunner and less comprehensive terms were designer foods and functional foods, with neither expression being comprehensive or very insightful without further explanation! Here are what I believe to be viable and clear definitions:
Nutraceuticals are bioactive compounds (read: chemicals) that have health benefits. Ray Goldberg of the Harvard Business School has coined the term agriceutical. I view agriceuticals to be the potential bioactive compounds that are present in commodities that are articles of agricultural trade. However, sources of many nutraceuticals are plants (and a limited number of animals) that are not domesticated, i.e., that grow in the wild. These are classically the subject of natural products chemistry.

Nutraceuticals include nutrients as well as non-nutrients because from a health benefit viewpoint there can be complementation (e.g., nutrient antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and beta-carotene are complemented by non-nutrient antioxidants such as lycopene, resveratrol, and others to arrive at the total antioxidant capacity of the food or the person).

So we see the lineage from pharmacognosy and drug discovery to compounds where the delivery system is nominal food, or a food fortified with a nutraceutical of some other origin. Thus, nutraceuticals can be found in foods (e.g., garlic) or more concentrated in supplement form (garlic “pills”), or the bioactive compound may be isolated from a non-food source (e.g., pine tree in pulp production), which is then incorporated (with or without further chemical modification) as an ingredient into a functional food delivery system, such as margarine, salad dressing, or food bar.

Products containing nutraceuticals are here to stay, having reached a worldwide estimated value of $65 billion. A number of dedicated peer-reviewed journals and symposia proceedings are available. There is a monthly trade publication called Nutraceuticals World. The shifting of corporate divisions and companies is reported monthly in the Nutrition Business Journal, and the European business scene is covered in New Nutrition Business (

And courses at the advanced level at universities are becoming routine. At Rutgers University, we have inaugurated a joint College of Pharmacy and Cook College Food Science three-credit semester course entitled “Herbal Medicines and Nutraceuticals.” Rutgers is among the first food science departments to have a Nutragenomics faculty position.

The funding of research at various institutions in the United States is emanating not only from industry but also from government, including the Office of Dietary Supplements, the Office of Alternative Medicine, the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health, and, in lesser amounts, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. The New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology has been a godsend source of research funding on “pioneer nutraceuticals.”

In addition to open research publications, research universities such as Rutgers have established virtual companies based on intellectual properties, with the view of acquiring independent long-range support for expensive equipment and future innovative advances in research that are not flagged by exposure in competitive grant applications. These trends, in my opinion, also foreshadow the increasing shift into the nutraceutical field by the pharmaceutical industry.

The following seminar titles reflect the diversity of the search and function of nutraceutical compounds that have been or are under varying degrees of investigation at Rutgers, unified by the Graduate Program in Food Science: hypocholesterolemic phytochemicals of bamboo shoots; thermal decomposition products of carnosol from rosemary and sage; phytochemistry of pesticides used on organic farms; effect of tea polyphenols on arachidonic acid metabolism in colon cells; effects of curcuminoids on arachidonic metabolism in human colon cells; identification of bioactive compounds from licorice; identification of cytotoxic compounds from Vietnamese coriander; determination of a potent phytoestrogen in hops; biotransformations of tea catechins; purification and characterization of quinoa seed phytochemicals; thermal degradation of sulforaphane; antioxidants of almond skin; and fatty acid composition of figs.

Executive Director, The Nutraceuticals Institute
New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.