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Vol. 6 No. 1 - Millennium Issue - January 2000

Functional Food, Medicinal Food and Nutraceuticals

Approach to Health Care in 21st Century

P Pushpangadan

There is a strong connection between what we eat and our health. A better understanding of the same would lead to the development of an alternate mode of healthcare through diet regulation - such as use of functional food or medical food etc. This trend is now fast emerging, particularly in the developed countries. As we are moving to the next millennium equipped with the most powerful tools of information technology, the societies of the next millennium/ century will be knowledge societies. It empowers even an ordinary man with information that will enable him to choose the right food that will be beneficial for his healthcare. People with average education are now familiar with a variety of molecular and chemical terms in food and nutrition and the concept of personal health care would be of much significance in the next century. Food and nutritional supplements would be recommended, after studying the constitutional nature of the individual, which would enable him to lead a healthy and agile life. Such a situation will revolutionize the healthcare in the 21st century. It will also cut down substantially the expenditure on health sectors both by the individuals as well as by the governments.

In the 21st century, there will be more dieticians in comparison to doctors who treat diseases. The responsibilities of government will be then mainly providing correct information on health and nutrition so as to help the people to differentiate between facts and fiction in matters of food and health. Responsibilities of the government should also be in ensuring that clean air, unpolluted wholesome water to drink, and natural food with the right information is made available to the public. High public awareness about the vital link between food and health has been increased during the last one-decade or so. Nations of the world may establish a network on Human Nutrition Information Service (HNIS) to compile, evaluate and provide the right information to public on all matters related to food, nutrition and health.

New range of health foods under the names, viz. functional foods, medicinal foods and nutraceuticals are now becoming very popular in the developed countries. Indeed, we are witnessing a new paradigm shift in our approach to health and medicine. It is something like that we are moving from a crisis intervention based health care model to preventive healthcare model in which the food we eat will be given a special attention. Selection of such food articles particularly the vegetables and fruits in preventing diseases and discomforts or that promotes good health is termed as functional foods or nutraceuticals. In India, it was a tradition to have specific dietary regimes in different seasons that varied from region to region. The Indian tradition, particularly the traditional system of medicines like Ayurveda, gives a detailed account on the type of food to be taken by people in different seasons and in different agroclimatic conditions. It also recommends various do’s and don’ts in the selection and combinations of food articles. For example, Ayurvedic masters recommend consumption of vegetables like bottle gourd, lady’s finger, snake gourd, spinach and red pumpkin and avoid sunflower, drumstick, gourd, brinjal etc., in Hemant season (Dec-Jan). Restrictions and recommendations are also given in case of fruits.

Vegetables and fruits constitute the health protective and health promotive components of our food. They contribute to the requirement of essential minerals, vitamins, and other phytochemicals that enable us to adjust and adapt in different agroclimatic conditions and seasons as well as for people of different constitution and age groups. The fruits and vegetables of tropical regions have powerful antioxidants and other elements that help in protecting us from harmful radiations, combating free radicals/superoxides and in providing better immunity from many tropical diseases. We may here examine a few examples:

Traditionally, tamarind is consumed in one form or the other by the people all over India. In South India, tamarind is used throughout the year in the form of various preparations like Curry, ‘Sambhar’, ‘Rasam’, and ‘Chutney’. In North India, especially in summer, Tamarind water blended with ‘jeera’ or other spices are taken as ‘Golguppa’ or as ‘chutney’. Raw mango drinks, barley water with lemon or tamarind or black carrot preparations in the form of cold drinks are also widely used in summer. Many of us, perhaps, are not aware of the health protective role played by these foodstuffs in summer. Scientific investigations have shown that tamarind and raw mango contain some proteins and glycolipids that bind with fluoride and thus protect us from fluoride poisoning. Traditionally, the source of our drinking water is mainly from wells and ponds. It is now well known that well water is rich in fluoride content, particularly in Southern parts of India, it is very high. However in north India, when the water level of the wells goes down in summer, fluoride content in the water goes high. Consumption of tamarind or raw mango has been shown to protect us from fluoride poisoning. This fact was discovered after an incident of heavy fluoride poisoning in a place in south Andhra Pradesh, sometime in late 1980s. The people of this region, sometime in early 1980s, found the cultivation of tomato more lucrative and began to use tomato as a substitute for tamarind and in due course tamarind was altogether eliminated from their food. The result was disastrous. An unidentified serious disease - some neurotic problems afflicted almost the entire population of the region and many became paralysed. It became so serious that the doctors and medical authorities were very much perplexed. After detailed investigations, it was finally discovered that this abnormal disease was due to heavy fluoride poisoning. The people of the region were taking drinking water from wells from time immemorial. Then how comes suddenly this problem arose? Indeed high fluoride content in well water is found in almost all other regions of South India, but the people of these regions were not facing any such fluoride poisoning. The search finally led to the discovery that the elimination of tamarind from the food caused fluoride poisoning. Research carried out on tamarind further established that certain proteins and glycolipids found in tamarind bind with fluoride and thus protect us from fluoride poisoning. Tamarind also contains certain compounds that lend protection from solar radiation and protect us from the damages caused by the free radicals and super oxides.

The lesson that we learn from this incident is, that tamarind and such food articles used in different seasons are indeed protecting our health. Tomato is a good vegetable rich in vitamins, minerals etc. but does not contain those precious components that protect us from fluoride poisoning or from harmful radiations. There are many similar cases. Another similar case we may discuss here is about the consumption of cabbage. Cabbage was introduced in India, particularly in North India some 100-125 years back from the Mediterranean region. Traditionally it was used only in winter season. But with the introduction of fast transportation means and storage facilities, many such winter vegetables are becoming available in summer also. The result is the great harm which is now causing to the health of people. The increasing incidence of stones in kidney gall bladder, thyroid problems, etc. can now be attributed to such use of unseasonal fruits and vegetables. Cruciferous plants in general, cabbage in particular, is now best known to selectively accumulate/assimilate high amounts of minerals and metals including the toxic metals from soil and store them in the leaves. Currently, cabbage is being extensively used in phytoremediation of soils contaminated with toxic metals. When we consume cabbage in winter it does not cause any harm because of the high urination in a diluted form which flush out all minerals and metals. On the other hand in summer the urine gets concentrated due to the heavy loss of water by sweating which causes the crystallisation of minerals leading to the formation of stones in kidney and gall bladder. Sometimes, toxic metals get back into the bloodstream causing damage to the thyroid gland.

The above examples clearly demonstrate the important role of seasonal vegetables and fruits in protecting our health. We have to take the right kind of vegetables and fruits that are suited to adjust and adapt to the given climate. We have to learn thus a lot from the traditional wisdom of our people. There is an urgent need to have fresh look at our traditional dietary habits and revive the use of all those food articles that promote and protect health. Realizing the folly of the fast food culture, the western world are now turning to traditional diets or ethnic foods and converting this knowledge system of the traditional communities to value added forms such as functional foods and nutraceuticals and thus making a good market for such products. India with such a diverse traditions in food habits must take best advantage of this situation and strive to become a leader in global market of functional foods and nutraceuticals.

Dr. P Pushpangadan is the Director of the National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow-226 001 (India).

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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