What is a Nutraceutical?

Typically, the term nutraceutical is used for supplements and applied to products derived from foods but believed to provide additional health benefits beyond those of the basic essential nutrients.

Photo: The Horse Staff

Q. Occasionally I hear the term nutraceutical. Often it seems to be in relation to joint supplements but I’ve also hear it used to describe supplements in general. What does it actually mean?


A. Stephen DeFelice, founder and chairman of the Foundation for Innovation Medicine, coined the term nutraceutical in 1989. The blending of two words, “nutrient” (defined as a substance that provides nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life) and “pharmaceutical” (defined as a medicinal drug), was originally used for human supplements, but the term has become very broadly applied and crossed over in to the field of animal supplements. DeFelice’s original definition was "a food (or part of a food) that provides medical or health benefits, including the prevention and/or treatment of a disease."

Typically, the term nutraceutical is used for supplements and applied to products derived from foods but believed to provide additional health benefits beyond those of the basic essential nutrients. The goal being to improve general well-being and potentially control symptoms or clinical signs, and possibly even prevent unfavorable conditions. So in the horse world, joint supplements are an obvious choice for this terminology; we feed ingredients such as glucosamine and chondroitin derived from what are considered food sources with the aim of improving joint function.

In theory, this all sounds fabulous. However, the term has no regulatory definition and, as you’ve pointed out, can mean different things to different people. This leaves the door open for consumer confusion, because in reality “nutraceutical” is more of a marketing term than anything else. Often consumers have the false perception that “all natural medicines must be good”; however, this isn’t always the case.

Per U.S. law, there are only two legal categories for products intended for animals: 1. food/feed and 2. drugs. The American Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulates animal feed, while the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) oversees animal drugs. A nutraceutical, as defined, doesn’t fall cleanly into either one of these regulatory categories.

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C) defines the following: Food (animal feed) “articles used for food or drink for man or other animals … and articles used for components of any such article” and drugs “an article intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease, or an article intended to affect the structure function of the body other than food.”

The definition of a nutraceutical is clearly trying to fall into both categories.

For this reason it is a term neither the FDA nor the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) support and, as a result, its use is gradually fading. Per Bill Bookout, NASC president, his organization and FDA view animal supplements in two ways:

  1. Feed supplements intended to make a nutritional contribution in a healthy animal; and
  2. Health supplements that are products intended to provide a health benefit.

The AAFCO oversees the former, as well as feed supplements containing AAFCO-approved ingredients known to provide nutritional benefit. Meanwhile, NASC provides guidance to member companies manufacturing health supplements that don’t contain recognized nutritional ingredients and are not intended for nutritional benefit.

In fact, the FDA sees health supplements as drugs that—rather than diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent disease—improve structure or function through nutrition per the FD&C.

Products must undergo extensive FDA testing for manufacturers to be able to make diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention claims—these products are true pharmaceuticals. Therefore, nutritional supplement manufacturers making such claims are doing so illegally. Health supplements can’t include statements such as “reduces the risk of developing equine gastric ulcers,” because this would be a prevention claim. However, under structure function regulations they could say a product “helps support a healthy gastrointestinal tract.”

Likewise, “omega-3 fatty acids are potent anti-inflammatories” would not be allowed as this implies treatment or mitigation, but “omega-3 fatty acids help support a normal inflammatory response” would be allowed.

While fewer companies are using the term nutraceutical, it always takes longer for a term to leave everyday use than to enter it. However, while the term might not be used as frequently in marketing, plenty of companies still make claims that they shouldn’t legally. It’s up to us as consumers to educate ourselves as to what is and isn’t legal. Armed with this information we’re better able to identify those players in the marketplace that are and aren’t trying to play by the rules.

Take-Home Message

My recommendation is to avoid products from companies that aren’t playing by the rules. If I see illegal language, I walk away because either they are doing so deliberately or they’re ignorant of the rules. Either way, such behavior doesn’t instill me with confidence for their product, especially when there are so many other companies doing it right.

A list of companies making animal health supplements and following the rules is available on the NASC website (http://nasc.cc/members/). There are, of course, non-NASC members doing a good job, and if you are unsure, contact them and ask them the following: Who formulates their products, who can you call if you have questions or need expert advice, and what sort of testing and quality assurance do they have in place?

Remember the companies that make claims that sound too good to be true probably are too good to be true.

About the Author

Clair Thunes, PhD

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the United Kingdom Pony Club. Today, she serves as the regional supervisor for the Sierra Pacific region of the United States Pony Clubs. As a nutritionist she works with all horses, from WEG competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything in between.

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