Is This Supplement Maker onto Something?
A recent study from the UK's Cardiff University and British supplement maker Cultech Ltd. highlights a new trend in the healthcare world—medical supplements. The United States doesn't allow dietary supplements such as vitamins or herbs to make health claims on their labels—to do this, they would have to go through FDA drug approval process. However, some other nations do—if the science backs up the claims. And this could be a very rich vein of revenue to be mined for those willing to undertake the science.
The study in question looks at the effect of a combination of omega-3 fatty acids, flavanols, and phytosterols on atherosclerosis. As it turns out, they appear to be an effective treatment. But you don't need to buy a supplement to get them.
Do "superfoods" make for a "super supplement" that can treat heart disease?
Atherosclerosis is the most common type of cardiovascular disease. It's a fancy name for plaque buildup in the arteries—the cause of most heart attacks. It's estimated that this issue is responsible for about one-third of all deaths world-wide. And in spite of the cholesterol hysteria and the push to get the majority of adults on statin drugs, there really is no truly effective medical treatment for the problem. This makes a real treatment one of the holy grails of pharmaceutical research.
Now it appears that supplement makers want in on the game.
The heart health effects of omega-3s, flavonols, and phytosterols have all been well-publicized. It seems that every week there's another story touting the benefits specific foods high in one of these substances. New studies are published periodically, and with each new bit of research we have someone proclaiming a new "superfood" that we all need to eat in order to stay healthy. While I'm not fond of the "superfood" label, the research on all three compounds is pretty solid.
All three of these substances have been shown to benefit heart health. However, to date no one has looked at whether combining them increases their power. That's what the Cardiff study set out to do. Rather than looking at each "superfood" active compound separately, they mixed them all together to see what happened. And they found that—at least in a cell-based model—together they slowed down the development of atherosclerosis. They have yet to see how it works in humans, but they're hoping to market a dietary supplement that can treat arterial plaque build-up.
And of course if that works out, they want to create—you guessed it—more products.
Are we looking at the rise of "Big Supplements"?
This study was a collaborative effort between a respected university and a supplement maker, and I'm happy to see serious research into non-drug solutions to our most pressing health problems. But as much as I hate to say it, it also makes me very uneasy. There are several reasons for this. One is the age-old battle over regulating supplements. Big Pharma would like nothing more than to see supplements regulated out of existence—or at least into their control. There have also been Big Pharma forays into supplement territory, such as the "prescription fish oil" fiasco a few years ago. Here's what happened:
We had a supplement that had measurable health benefits. Clinically significant results. However, since fish oil is merely a "dietary supplement" rather than a drug, it's not allowed to advertise any of its powerful effects on health and disease. Big Pharma capitalized on that by tweaking its structure a little and selling a "more powerful," concentrated form...as a drug. This really concerns me because I can see it happening with other supplements which have been clinically shown to have an effect on disease. Might we see "prescription chocolate" at some later date? It sounds ridiculous—but so does prescription fish oil.
On the other hand, I can also see a whole new class of supplements arising. Supplements that have shown clinical results might be regulated like drugs, but not required to jump through the financial hoops associated with FDA drug approval. It would mean creating a new set of rules and regulations. However, there's enough money to be made that it could be worthwhile for the players involved. It would be a win-win for supplement makers and Big Pharma alike.
I can see collaborations between pharma companies and supplement makers. I can see Big Pharma buying up supplement makers, which is even worse. And I can see Big Pharma simply branching out into the supplement market, which is the worst scenario of all.
You don't need to take a supplement to get the benefits
I'm all about non-drug solutions. But I'm not sure if the rise of the medical supplement that we're seeing is the way we need to go. Because there's something we tend to forget. The active ingredients in dietary supplements are all based on one thing: compounds that exist in our food. There are very few things that we can't get from our diet—if we're eating a balanced, nutritious diet of real food.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am a firm supporter of supplements of many kinds. I recommend a variety from vitamin B6 to fish oil, depending on what the complaint is and what kind of lifestyle factors are at play. But in my lifetime, I've seen the supplement industry grow and change—and not always for the better. Many of the changes I've seen have smacked a little too much of Big Pharma tactics, and make me wonder if we're seeing the very beginnings of the rise of Big Supplements.
Keep in mind that Big Pharma wasn't always the behemoth that it is today. Once, it too was a collection of little companies with little markets doing little things.
So here's my suggestion: don't wait for a miracle supplement for atherosclerosis to hit the market. You can get all the benefits of omega-3s, flavanols, and phytosterols simply by eating a real diet of real foods.
- Omega-3s are found in fatty cold-water fish. Eat wild-caught salmon and mackerel. Chia seeds are also a good source.
- Flavanols come from several sources. Dark chocolate is the most publicized, but other good sources include apples, berries, kale, broccoli and even onions. Eat real food.
- Phytosterols can be found in many seeds and unrefined seed oils like sesame and sunflower. Nuts and Brussels sprouts are also high in these compounds.
The thing to keep in mind is this: real nutrition comes from real food. This should be the basis for everything. Supplements are intended to do just that—supplement.
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