Eating well

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: (Published 08 July 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:132
  1. Bernard Dixon

    Asign of the times. Our local health food shop, already full of balderdash from floor to ceiling, is moving from its existing premises to new ones double the size along the road.

    That should make it twice as much fun for the occasional browse. On my last visit (picking up some of their excellent orange juice) I spotted several really interesting products. From one shelf I collected Quiet Life Tablets (“for nerve strain, tenseness and irritability”) and Calm Life Tablets (“for the symptomatic relief of restlessness and irritability”). Then I spotted “Sodium Compound” and “Chloride Compound”--not combined together, as in my childhood chemistry set, but in separate jars. I bought the lot. None of the potions was cheap, but as I haven't taken any of them a month later, they're not proving too expensive after all.

    Gentle mockery aside, I am beginning to think again about health food shops. Do they, despite a range of stock that stretches from the lovely to the ludicrous, symbolise a trend of real significance in our approach to disease? Two papers published in recent months underline that possibility.

    The first was a review of antioxidants by Pamela Mason in the Pharmaceutical Journal (1995;254:264). Mason discussed the evidence that antioxidants afford protection against cardiovascular and other diseases by impairing processes mediated by free radicals in cell membranes, and by reducing the susceptibility of tissues to oxidative stress. She then tackled the knotty question of whether pharmacists ought to recommend antioxidant supplements.

    Her conclusion: your local chemist should indeed emphasise the importance of eating a diet rich in antioxidant nutrients, especially one with plenty of fruit, vegetables, and whole grain cereals. But on the question of supplements, her advice to pharmacists is more restrained, indeed cannily cautious: “Freedom of choice of consumers to buy these products should be respected.”

    The second paper, by David Jack, appeared in Molecular Medicine Today (1995;1: 118), the latest and very timely addition to the invariably excellent Trends series of journals. It was, frankly, a surprise to find, alongside some high powered material more closely matching the new journal's title, a piece on “the exciting world of nutraceuticals.” But there it was, a convergence between the worlds of foods and pharmaceuticals.

    Clearly, this is an arena likely to provide space for all manner of hocus pocus. Yet at the same time, whether we consider the electrolytes in Japanese “sports drinks,” the (omega)-3 fatty acids in salad dressing, or the lactobacilli in dairy products, there is some foundation in sober reality for the health benefits of these products and some justification for the recently introduced term “nutraceutical.” David Jack estimates that the market for nutraceuticals in the United States alone is already some $250bn--more than double that for ethical and over the counter pharmaceuticals combined.

    Watch this space, I suppose. Meanwhile, I was interested to read recently in the BMJ (1995;310:1368) that curry cooked in a cast iron wok provides an extremely rich source of dietary iron. It seems that our health food store will soon be facing hot competition. A balti house is opening just across the road.--BERNARD DIXON, European contributing editor, Biotechnology

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