Nutraceuticals and Pharmaceuticals



Are organically grown foods better for our health? Are they considered medicinal?

Pharmacology verses Pharmacognosy


We all know that it is better to get our nutrients from the foods we eat instead of taking supplements. But how much do we know about some nutraceuticals that may be in part food?

When pharmacology first evolved it was all about pharmacognosy- or  natural pharmaceuticals that are medicinal.  Pharmacognosy is the oldest branch of pharmacy. This ancient medicine gathered herbs, animals, plants and minerals to concoct them into mixtures which were considered great remedies.

From this humble beginning medicine and pharmacy gradually evolved.  Pharmacology is an outgrowth of pharmcognosy It is important to remember that before the age of synthetic medicine, there was nature!

Natural Medicine

Nutraceutical is another term to describe food as medicine. Many foods, plants or naturally occuring material can help prevent and treat diseases.

By law pharmaceuticals are usually classified as medicine

An example is melatonin. In some countries it is classified as a medicine and not freely available.

Herbal Remedies

Herbal remedies are usually classified as medicine because of their perceived risk with self-medication. An example is  digitalis. This plant contains potent pharmacological entities and therefore classed as medicine

Functional Foods

These are closely related to nutraceuticals as they are food based. Examples carotenoids, but others may be biotechnological entities such as  pre and probiotics. A new term has recently been coined for functional foods:    “Phoods”


Vitamins can also be classed as medicine but may be freely available. The distincition between certain vitamins and nutraceuticals  can be blurred. An example: B-carotene which is a vitamin A precursor.


Many nutraceuticals are derived from plants and foods, and marketing usually follows legal status, medicines and non-medicines being clearly separate.


Another definition from the USA is a diet supplement which delivers a concentrated form of a presumed bioactive agent from a food. This may be presented in a non-food matrix and used to enhance health in doses that may exceed those from natural foods.

A functional food is a natural or formulated food that has enhancement ability to perform, prevent or treat a particular disease.

Research: food, dietary supplements, medicinal food

The foundation for Innovation in Medicine (FIM) introduced the Nutraceutical Research and Education Act in Congress in October 1997. This Act promotes clinical research and development of dietary supplements and foods with health benefits ( nutraceuticals) to establish a new legal classification and give rights to the company doing the research for a set time period.

Of all 3 categories: food, dietary supplements and medicinal food; medicinal foods have the fewest formal regulatory controls.

Taken in part from: Lockwood, B.  (2007). Nutraceuticals. 2nd Ed. Manchester, UK Pharmaceutical Press.

Soderlund, W. A. (2004) Drugstore Museum. Pharmacognosy: Historical Natural Pharmacueticals and Drugs.