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Vol. 30 No. 5
September-October 2008

Functional Foods: Reflections on an Expanding Market

by A. Monge et al.

In 2006, IUPAC supported the study of Nutraceuticals in Latin America as a scientific opportunity of commercial interest for the entire community. This initiative, promoted by the IUPAC Subcommittee on Medicinal Chemistry and Drug Development, chaired by C.R. Ganellin, resulted in Latin American researchers uniting efforts to successfully carry out this study. This project consists of a general presentation of the topic followed by discussions of specific situations in different Latin American countries.

The term nutraceutical is the result of a contraction between nutrition and pharmaceutical. In 1989, Stephen Defelice defined nutraceutical1 as “any substance that is a food or a part of a food and provides medical or health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of disease.”

Not long after, the definition was modified by Health Canada, which defined nutraceutical as “a product isolated or purified from foods, and generally sold in medicinal forms not usually associated with food, and demonstrated to have a physiological benefit or provide protection against chronic disease.”2 In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary this term is defined as “foodstuff (as a fortified food or dietary supplement) that provides health benefits in addition to its basic nutritional value.”

Functional food (FF) is that which has a beneficial effect for health, be it for its constitution or for having added a nutraceutical to the original foodstuff, more specifically in certain Latin American countries. Thus, according to Health Canada,2 a FF is “consumed as part of a usual diet that is similar in appearance to, or may be, a conventional food, and is demonstrated to have physiological benefits and/or reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions” (beyond energy and essential nutrients). For example, yogurt promotes beneficial microflora in the gut; cereals provide a significant source of fiber believed to decrease the risk of certain types of cancer; papaya, which contains papain, helps the digestion of protein and provides other benefits (see below).

The concept of FF is very old: “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food. Whosoever gives these things no consideration and is ignorant of them, how can he understand the diseases of man.” Hippocrates ca 400 B.C.3 Interest in functional foods emerged in Japan in the mid-1980s, with the following objectives:

  • control healthcare costs
  • improve quality of life
  • increase life expectancy

Indeed, the term functional food was first introduced in Japan and refers to processed foods containing ingredients that aid specific bodily functions in addition to being nutritious (Foods for Specified Health Use, FOSHU).4

In the past few years, consumption of functional foods has increased considerably and is a growing market. In many developed societies, there is a subset of the population that is preoccupied with these types of food, which have beneficial properties or incorporate extracts or compounds such as vitamins. In addition, these people are often focused on avoiding the ingestion of saturated fats, controlling alcohol intake, doing daily exercise, and following other healthy habits.

The situation is quite different in developing countries, where people consume functional foods to resolve nutritional problems and hunger and as a substitute for more expensive medicines. There are millions of people for whom these compounds not only prevent a loss of health but are, in fact, the only form of treating a disease.

We are living in an important time in which the developed countries are very interested in functional food that can be made available from the developing countries. With regard to variety as well as quantity, the majority of the plants under consideration as good sources of phytochemicals—extracts that are added to food such as fruit juice—are found in developing countries. It might be opportune to appeal to corporations’ social responsibility so that developing and developed both benefit.

Questions To Be Resolved
Frequently, knowledge of specific phytochemicals and their uses is limited to different native communities, which have a long history of using these compounds. However, these communities lack the modern scientific training to translate the benefits of these phytochemicals in such a way that the developed world will understand.

There are three principal issues to resolve. First, there is the question of scientific validation and verification of the claims of healthful effects from these products. The second issue involves the need to determine if the benefit can be obtained at the doses ingested with routine intake of the food. The third issue is related to safety issues; nothing justifies the affirmation that a natural product is equivalent to a non-toxic product.

Functional Foods in Latin America
The Latin American region extends from Mexico to Chile and Argentina. It includes countries of diverse geography and culture, but nearly all possess a long history of using plants for health-related treatments, with innumerable oral and written testimonies to the curative effects of plants. Quinine, for the treatment of malaria, is probably the most well know of these.

Latin America’s wealth in plants with potential applications as functional foods is remarkable, for its variety as well as for the associated traditional knowledge regarding the plants.

Traditionally, plants have been associated with medicinal agents; hence, the interest shown by medicinal chemistry. Typically, scientists isolate and optimize compounds synthesized by plants for clinical use. The product that is finally introduced into clinical trials is usually a chemical modification of that which was originally found in the plant. Consequently, there is a loss of interest in the original material of vegetable origin.

The scenario is very different when considering functional foods. Research can be carried out on the plant itself in such a way that the final product can be created completely within the developing countries, which results in local growth and maintains biodiversity.

Latin America’s wealth in plants with potential applications as functional foods is remarkable, for its variety as well as for the associated traditional knowledge regarding the plants. This article presents examples of functional foods from many different countries. It is hoped that disseminating this knowledge will encourage companies and researchers to consider the importance of the issue and to take an interest in it. However, it should be pointed out that exploiting these plants can be sensitive because in many cases native groups are apprehensive about revealing discoveries that are part of their cultural heritage.

This situation is especially important and representative of the Amazon, where there are isolated groups that have their own languages, social structures, and nutritional habits. It is interesting to see how different isolated tribes use the same plants for the same use. For example, in the treatment for obesity,5 the Yanumansi from the Venezuelan part of the Amazon (250 persons) use Smilax dominguensis in the same way as the Aba Conoeiros of Brazil (Fuentes del Totacntis) (50 persons) or as the Mamainde, also Brazilians (Rondônia-Alto Rio Curimbiara) (200 persons). Another example could be the use of Turnera ulmifolia for the treatment of something as generic as debility by the Apiaca of Brazil (Mato Grosso Norte (100 persons) or by the Kayapu (200 persons), also from Brazil (Moto Grasso) or by the Maku (300 persons) from the valleys of Uneiuxi del Urubaxi in Brazil, or by the Piriutiti (110 persons) of Rio Curian or by the Sinabo (320 persons) of Bolivia (Bajo Yata). Far from the Amazon, in Mexico, (Chihuahua) the Taraumaras (500 persons) also use this plant for the same purpose.

With regard to these countries that are so rich in biodiversity, it is important that the aforementioned comments regarding experiences based on human groups composed of small numbers of people be verified scientifically. Continuing on with the area of the Amazon and focusing on Brazil, one example to be considered is Taraxacum officinale, an Asteracea containing a family of compounds which are claimed to be an antioxidant, have antiinflammatory and diurectic effects, and even be useful in the treatment of diabetes, without having scientific evidence to back up these claims,6 and yet with well-known side effects and interactions.

This plant, known as Dandelion (Diente de León), is abundant throughout the Northern Hemisphere and is cultivated in East European countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. It is used in the form of infusions, decoctions of the roots, and also extracts from the leaves. This is an example of a plant that presents activity of interest that is still not confirmed and whose side effects should be taken into consideration, and yet it is being used with clear benefits of exploitation. It is an example of a relationship between different societies and continents that clearly reflects the difficulty regarding the establishment of the therapeutic use and innocuity of a plant regardless of the society being considered.

In Brazil, the root vegetable “racacha” or Arracacia xanthorriza is a major commercial crop. Purees and soups made from the root are considered excellent for children and babies. Racacha is rich in minerals and vitamins A and B and in calcium and phosphorus. It is easily digested and is indicated for convalescents and the elderly. Racacha roots are used as the basis of a food regimen in the district of Coroico, Bolivia, accompanied by yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius) juice; yacon is a sweet root vegetable whose pulp contains inulin, an agent that can be related to the control of diabetes.6,7 Many claim that Racacha provides energy, boosts the immune system, and prevents infections. It is necessary to demonstrate whether or not these claimed benefits correspond to the traditional use of the plant.

The institutional support given to the cultivation of Racacha has helped to improve the species, and its industrialization8 benefits Andean countries. This is a clear example of how technical aid can benefit entire regions.

Sarsaparilla, Kajahuatena (Smilax regeli Killipel Morton Griseb), is another example of a root frequently used in America for its diuretic and purifying effects and for its effective treatment of psoriasis. Both the root and the rhizomes are used.

It is not surprising that governments, such as Bolivia’s, have invested in research related to the production and determination of the properties of these plants, which have been known about in certain areas for a long time.

The American continent is very rich in fruits that can be used in food regimens, in their original form as well as in the form of juices. One example is Papaya (Caraica papaya), of Mexican or Andean origin, according to diverse authors. Its use has extended throughout the entire world. Papaya pertains to Caricaceas and consists of 70 species. It is known for its content of papain which helps the digestion of protein, and it is also a source of potassium, vitamin C, pro-vitamin A and fiber.

While papaya is well extended throughout the world, knowledge regarding Noni juice (Morinda citrifolia L.) is different; the latter has been recognized for over 2000 years in many villages, cultivated throughout Central America, and commercialized by different companies.9 According to traditional knowledge, it has beneficial effects, such as for treating hypoglycemia, cholesterol levels, menstrual cramps, and blood pressure.10 It is also a typical situation that demonstrates the resistance of developing societies to further study on traditional activities. Nevertheless, Noni juice is commercialized throughout the entire world, but at an elevated price. It is an example of a plant that not only has possible beneficial effects for health but is also commercial. The climatic conditions of the Caribbean are very favorable for this crop. This plant is an example of a value-added crop whose complete process from cultivation to market can be carried out in developing countries, thereby contributing to their industrialization.

Guayaba (Psidium spp.), guava in English, is one among more than 100 very popular species in Central America and the Caribbean. The trees of the Myrtaceae family produce an edible fruit that contains vitamins A, B and C; Psidium guajara is the most popular.11 It is often used as an anti-influenza agent. This fruit is used in an ample variety of foods, frequently found in yogurt dairy products. In Mexina Calvillo, Aguascalientes, Mexico, within the Huajacar valley, the most important plantations of Guayaba are found. This could be considered a model of high yield sustained agriculture where, in addition to the beneficial effects of the fruit as a FF, the possibility of attaining great benefits for the development of the country can be taken into account.

Mango (Mangifera indica L.) is also an important fruit but, at present, the application of mango bark is considered for a pharmaceutical preparation (Vimang), made in Cuba.12 This preparation is a raw extract with antioxidant, analgesic, antiinflammatory and immunomodulating activity. The activity has been demonstrated in more than 7 000 patients during a period of ten years (1994–2004). It is a clear example of the use of natural resources because, in addition to the fruit itself which has its interest in nutrition, the Cuban scientists have extended their studies and carried out scientific experimentation based on traditional observations; this offers the opportunity to introduce new products, as nutraceuticals or FF, in heath treatment.

Naturally, when considering medicinal application of a plant, it is necessary to gather information that comes forth from its traditional use. One such case occurs in Costa Rica de Hombre Grande (Quassia amara L.ex. Blom). This plant, which extends from Mexico to the Amazon, is used in Europe as an appetizer, diuretic, and agent against dyspepsia and anorexia among others, which allows it to be considered as a nutraceutical. It also has an important use as an insecticide,13 as can be deduced from the important importation of this plant for said use by the USA since 1940. The latter example offers a good reason to develop and conserve the biodiversity of these countries in addition to promoting research for additional uses other than the traditionally observed medical use.

Industrialization of Functional Foods
Industrialization of FF is an important question that should be considered with great care, for the benefit of the developing countries. For example, in Mexico, the plants which are traditionally used for medicinal purposes are estimated to number 3000 (approximately 10 percent of the country’s plants), of which the number estimated to be commercialized is approximately 250;14 principally, their origin is in the central and southern areas of the country.

The project, “Mercados Verdes Herbolarios”, supported by the USA is an example where farm workers have acquired the ability for the sustained use and management and in the processing of medicinal plants. However, as Bentacourt cites,15 studies on this material that also consider the commercialization of these plants are scarce.

It is important to appreciate that if the use of plants for health purposes does not include industrial exploitation it will be impossible for them to reach societies which need them, and there will be no profitability for the societies that possess the plants. Likewise, a series of actions common among all countries is required for the management of plants as nutraceuticals or FF. In general, there is a need for national programs such as PRONAPLAMED (National Program of Medicinal Plants), in Mexico. The objective of these types of programs is to guarantee sustained cultivation, which permits conservation of the plants and an improvement of the species, whenever possible. It should be kept in mind that a great number of these plants that are used for nutraceuticals or FF are wild plants. In addition, the cultivators should be educated in this matter because, if not, certain aspects will be negatively affected. One such example is the quality, which is sometimes affected during the process “plant to finished product”. This is largely due to lack of knowledge or poor habits that are sometimes observed in the handling of the plants.

One possible solution for these cases lies in the formation of microcompanies, an activity much used today in developing countries; they are becoming accepted by the cultivators as they are beginning to realize the need for them.

There is a need for technology for the different phases that are involved in the preparation of these compounds. Storage and treatment can be real problems where there is a lack of properly ventilated warehouses and refrigerators.

The reasons behind the interest shown in plants by the national companies appear to be commonly shared by the native population whereas the transnational companies only seem to show interest in relation to the sectors that possess adequate economic availability.

In the Latin American countries a series of common characteristics appears, one being that their great tradition in the use of plants as FF or nutraceuticals corresponds to only 10 percent of their rich variety of plants. The most immediate consequence in this world of climatic changes and general aggressions on nature is the danger of losing the species.

The countries being considered here have formed organizations that support the producers through training of the cultivators, sustained management of the plants, and proper production of the final product. It should always be kept in mind that this action for the development of communities will result in good products, and efforts should be made so that the products may have the greatest possible added value. Producing fruit is not the same as producing juice, and the trade of plant extracts reduces the transportation costs and increases economic profit when compared with the commercialization of plain dried vegetable materials. Such development, in many cases, is out of the reach of plant producers and requires a technological input in order to establish, optimize and scale—up such processes. Organizations are being established through the creation of microcompanies in all of these countries and they reflect a great sense of solidarity.

The training of these cultivators is becoming an important aspect of this action because in many cases, the plants are wild and there is a possibility of unscrupulous exploitation which, in some cases, could result in mixing up some plants with others in a fraudulent attempt to satisfy possible market demands. An additional risk associated to this issue is the permanent lost of valuable species in their natural environments, which is a patent problem when roots are the organs of traditional use. The increasing concern in environmental affairs of the population from developed societies—consumers of natural resources produced in developing countries—could effectively contribute to the preservation of such resources, demanding the sustainable production of the raw material for the production of nutraceuticals and phytomedicines.


  1. E.K. Kalra, AAPS PharmSci, 2003, 5 (3), Artide 25
  2. Functional Food and Nutraceuticals. Agriculture and Agr-Food of Canada. Policy Paper—Nutraceuticals/Functional Foods and Health Claims and Foods. Definitions.
  3., woopit. Famous coutes.
  4. C.M. Hasler, “Food Technology,” 1998, 52 (II), 63-70; E. Farmworth, Medicinal Food News, 1997 (June) Nº 11
  5. Compañía independiente de Investigación Clínica Vegetal del Amazonas. <>
  7. (28 de agosto de 2005); La Prensa (La Paz. Bolivia) Edición Digital (11 de febrero de 2007)
  8. Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina (Perú)
  9. Global Environment Facility. Conservación de Raíces Andinas (5/2003—6/2005)
  10.; Morinda, Inc. Solicitud Europea Aprobada por decisión 2003/426/CE.
  12. Alberto J. Núñez-Selles, et al. Pharmacological Research (Accepted date 8-1-2007)
  13. R. Ocampo y R. Villalobos., Etnobotánica (4) Diciembre 1994 y citas de los autores.
  15. Bentacourt A. S. Y; Gutierrez D.M.A. (1999). Proyecto Mercados Verdes Herbolarios. Informe técnico final. Fondo de América del Norte para la Cooperación Ambiental (FANCA), Ecología, Desarrollo de Tlaxcala y Puebla. A.C. México, D.F. 250 pp.

This work is part of IUPAC project #2005-031-2-700 “Latin American Plants as Sources for Nutraceuticals” and has been discussed by the IUPAC Subcommittee on Medicinal Chemistry and Drug Development (at a meeting chaired by C. R. Ganellin, where the following members were present: S. O. Bachurin, E. Breuer, J. Fischer, A. Ganesan, G. Gaviraghi, and J. Senn-Bilfinger) part of Division VII Chemistry and Human Health (contemporary President P. W. Erhardt). We thank Professor C. R. Ganellin for help with the manuscript.

A. Monge <[email protected]> is a professor at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. Co-authors include E.J. Barreiro (Brasil), P. Huenchuñir (Chile); R. Pinzón (Colombia); G. Mora (Costa Rica); A. Núñez (Cuba); X. Chiriboga (Ecuador); A. Cáceres (Guatemala); G. Rivera, V. Bocanegra-García (Mexico), M. Gupta (Panama); E. A. Ferro, I. Peralta ((Facultad de Ciencias Químicas, Universidad Nacional de Asunción (Paraguay); O. Lock, D. Flores (Peru); L. Salazar, O. D. Guzmán (El Salvador); and H. Cerecetto, M. González (Uruguay).

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