What is Pharmaceutical Grade? What are nutraceuticals?

Nutritional supplements are becoming an increasingly popular addition to everyday life. In fact, Americans spend about $30 million on supplements every year. These products serve a range pf purposes from prevention of nutrient deficiencies to improvement of cognitive function to life extension. There are thousands of brands and formulations on the market to choose from, too. However, have you ever wondered whether your supplements are truly living up to their claims? Unfortunately, this can be a tricky maze to navigate. It’s important to understand the difference between different terms and labels to ensure you’re getting the most out of your supplements.

What is Pharmaceutical Grade?

Pharmaceutical grade supplements represent the top tier of quality. This means that the product’s potency, bioavailability (absorption) and purity adhere to the highest standards as tested and verified by a third-party company. Most vitamin and mineral supplements on store shelves do not meet these standards and are instead considered to be food grade, the next tier down from pharmaceutical. Pharmaceutical grade supplements can be obtained without a prescription, but in most cases, they’re only offered by medical professionals.

Choosing pharmaceutical grade supplements is an important consideration. This classification essentially determines the product’s effectiveness. Potency, bioavailability and purity have a dramatic impact on the way your body utilizes the nutrients, and whether it utilizes them at all. Take natural (d-alpha tocopherol) and synthetic (dl-alpha tocopherol) vitamin E as an example. The body absorbs the natural form far better than the synthetic version. Magnesium is another good example. The oxide form is more commonly used by manufacturers of food grade supplements because it’s cheaper to produce and they can fit more of it in a smaller tablet or capsule. Unfortunately, the body absorbs very little of it. Magnesium aspartate is considered to be superior due to its high rate of absorption.

Purity is another benefit of pharmaceutical grade supplements. Products that are food grade or lower may contain fillers and additives that can actually harm you. The testing processes for pharmaceutical grade supplements ensures that there are no dangerous ingredients or contaminants such as pesticides, heavy metals or other toxins.

Choosing pharmaceutical grade products also means you get greater potency for your money. Food grade supplements may contain as little as 20 percent of the listed active ingredient, and if it’s in a low-bioavailability form, you’re not even going to absorb that much of it. Pharmaceutical grade supplements may cost a bit more, but you can rest assured that you’re getting what you’re paying for.

What are Nutraceuticals?

This term is a hybrid of the words “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical”. It’s used to describe any supplement that has been isolated from a whole food and sold in a medicinal form. These products have known medicinal value and are typically used for the prevention or treatment of illness or deficiency. While these supplements often take the form of single nutrients or a combination thereof, the term “nutraceutical” can also apply to things like drink mixes, cereals, herbal teas and genetically modified foods.

Nutraceutical sounds very similar to pharmaceutical, so some people may think that the word is a reliable indicator of quality. However, nutraceuticals are not held to the same standards as pharmaceutical grade supplements and do not have to undergo the same testing. That said, if chosen carefully and purchased from a reputable manufacturer, they can be a valuable addition to any health regimen. Common examples include things like:

  • Resveratrol from red grapes
  • Anthocyanins from blueberries
  • Flavonoids from citrus or other fruit
  • Isoflavones from soy
  • Fiber from psyllium or chicory
  • Sulforaphane from cabbage
  • Allicin from onions and garlic
  • Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) from green tea
  • Omega-3 from fish, flax or chia
  • Curcumin from turmeric
  • Cinnamaldehyde from cinnamon
  • Capsaicin from cayenne pepper
  • Lycopene from tomatoes
  • Eugenol from cloves
  • Beta carotene from carrots or leafy greens
  • Indole-3-carbinol from broccoli or cabbage
  • Gingerol from ginger

These substances are commonly found as their own supplements or in multi-nutrient preparations. They are also often used in the pharmaceutical and food processing industries for purposes ranging from colors to flavorings.

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