|In recent years, the chemistry research of natural products
has focused on the identification of biologically active secondary
metabolites in plants, commonly used as vegetables in the human diet
and which, in past centuries, had been used not only as food or spices
but also in traditional medicinal remedies. The main contribution that
can be attributed to plants is the introduction for example of vitamins
or minerals to the human diet. However, they contain other secondary
metabolites, which are defined as nutraceuticals and which have
recently been, at the center of large scientific studies. Edible plants are
rich in polyphenols , terpenoids [2-4], flavonoids, alkaloids, sterols,
pigments and unsaturated fatty acids, which play an important role in
maintaining wellness. The Mediterranean diet includes a good amount
of plant food (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, wine, olive oil) , which
by preventing oxidation reactions, results in a significant reduction of
risk factors in coronary heart disease and in lowering cholesterol levels
in blood . They also result in the decrease in the risk of chronic
degenerative diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease,
autoimmune diseases and multiple sclerosis [7,8]. Epidemiological
studies have attributed these positive effects to the presence of compounds
having antioxidant activity in foods (and beverages) commonly known
as polyphenols. From the chemical point of view the polyphenols are
classified into two groups: flavonoids and non-flavonoids. Belonging to
the flavonoids group, flavonols present themselves both in free form or
as glycosides; the flavan-3-ols such as catechin, and anthocyanins such
as malvidin-3-glycoside. Among the non-flavonoids there is gallic acid,
the hydroxicinnamate such as p-coumaric acid, caffeic acid  and the
caftaric acid and stilbenes such as trans- and cis-resveratrol. The most
significant component of the polyphenols is made up of condensed
tannins, also known as procyanidins. They are oligomers and polymers
of catechins (catechin or epicatechin), condensed by 4-6 and 4-8
carbon-carbon bonds. Grapes contain catechins and procyanidins
in the seeds and skins and are major constituents of red wine, along
with resveratrol; epigallocatechin is abundant in green tea [8-10]. The
interest for the antioxidant compounds derives from the observation of
their role in modulating the production of free radicals. A very timely
topic in research on the pathogenesis of many diseases is related to the
role played by the uncontrolled formation of free radicals: the action of
free radicals as mediators of tissue damage is in fact recognized in many
pathophysiological processes such as inflammation, atherosclerosis,
ischemia, tumors, the damage induced by ionizing radiation, aging and
|Currently, the majority of Italian medicinal plant species are
harvested in the wild. This exploitation, in addition to the replacement
of old local varieties with highly productive modern varieties over time,
can lead to a rapid process of simplification, reducing the biodiversity
of ecosystems. The in vitro propagation of the aromatic and medicinal
species represents a great potential for the conservation ex-situ of
ecotypes with particular characteristics  and for the large scale
production of bioactive molecules . Among these some are already
being used either as herbs, both for the extraction of essential oils and
aromatic compounds for use in herbal medicine and pharmacology.
Many scientific publications have attributed to the plant extracts used
as food or spice such as Capsicum annuum L. (Pepper) in sweet or spicy
forms [13,14], and plants belonging to the family Liliaceae such as garlic (A. sativum L.), onion (A. cepa L.), leek (A. porrum L.), shallot (A.
ascalonicum L.)  interesting pharmacological activities, including
antimicrobial, anticancer and anti-platelet aggregation. Recent studies
have led to the identification of numerous organic compounds whose
structure has been determined predominantly by spectroscopic nondestructive
methods (NMR mono-and two-dimensional experiments),
techniques to preserve the natural product and then by carrying out
pharmacological investigation. From the seeds of various species of
Allium and Capsicum new cytotoxic saponins and sapogenins with
antimicrobial activity were isolated  as well as a large number of
glycosides and phenolic derivatives of various kinds, on some of them
tests were made to evaluate the antiplatelet and antioxidant action .
The Lamiaceae, of which some of the species was used in folk medicine,
in cosmetics and nutrition for centuries, are a family of plants widely
distributed in all temperate zones. In the Mediterranean about thirty
types were recorded and it was observed that there is a large intraspecific
variation. It would therefore be desirable to add to the morphological
description of each species a fingerprint of secondary metabolites or
at least the quantitative determination of the more biologically active
compounds. As it is well known, the secondary metabolites may be
subject to considerable variations in a living plant as a function of
environmental and ontogenetic factors . Rosemary , sage ,
winter savory , basil , mint , oregano  and thymus 
have been studied extensively for their antioxidant properties, while
this biological activity has not been tested at all for other kinds.
|Nutraceutical is a “portmanteau” word, a combination from the two
words “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical” and refers to the study of foods
that have beneficial effects on human health. The term was coined by
Dr. Stephen DeFelice in 1989. Neutraceutical foods are described as
“functional foods”, “pharma foods” or “farmalimenti”. A nutraceutical
is a “food-drug” or a health food that associated with nutritional
components selected for characteristics such as digestibility and
hypoallergenic and the healing properties of natural active ingredients
extracted from plants, has a proven and recognized efficacy. Reliable
sources estimate the turnover in the United States in 1997 to be about
$35 billion dollars spent on these products. An increase of 2.7% is
estimated per year. In Europe it is estimated that currently the revenue
from products alone is €5 billion per year and €500 million euro per
year in Italy. It is believed that these data are underestimated, because
the use of nutraceuticals is second in order of importance to alternative
therapy and is used by about 40% of patients. Nutraceutical is therefore
the science that deals with the study of those foods, or parts of those
foods that have particular beneficial, preventative and therapeutic
effects on human health. Very often the word nutraceutical is compared to the adjective ‘functional’ even if a functional food is not necessarily
said to be a nutraceutical food. A food is therefore considered to be
functional when it is used as for its ability to prevent or treat specific
diseases, such as is the case with fruit and vegetables consumed to
prevent certain diseases and/or forms of cancer, while a nutraceutical
is nothing more than a preparation of pharmaceuticals (pills, capsules,
etc..) containing the active ingredients found in functional foods, but
extracted, purified, concentrated and assayed. Decaffeinated green tea
can be used as a simple example, it is considered as a functional food
if the daily intake is about 10-12 cups and it has shown to be able to
prevent some degenerative diseases including certain types of cancer
, but it is also true that it is used as a basis for certain nutraceutical
products containing catechins that have in turn been extracted from
it . Catechins are flavonoids found in chocolate, fruits, vegetables,
wine and many other plant species. The importance of catechins has
been demonstrated more than once in the literature and in particular
the basic role of inhibitor of the proliferation of cancer cells, in the
reduction of atherosclerotic plaques, in the prevention of cardiovascular
diseases, and in addition they have an important antioxidant action and
regulate the cellular cycle. In addition to having a direct anti-oxidant
action, catechins strengthen other antioxidant systems, such as those in
which vitamin E is involved. Recent research has also shown additional
health benefits, thanks to their hepatoprotective, immunostimulant
properties and the favorable effects they have on blood circulation and
blood pressure. It has been known since antiquity that nature is an
inexhaustible source of plants with phytotherapeutic, nutritional, and
functional properties and now with nutraceuticals a similar argument
can be made for another food: carob, a leguminous evergreen cultivated
in mediterranean regions. This plant is used both as a functional
food and as a nutraceutical because from its leaves, seeds and fruits
galactomannans, catechins, hydrolysable tannins and benzodiazepinlike
substances etc. can be extracted. Even if its reputation in the food
industry is mainly for flour made from its seeds, known to be a flour
with a high hydrocolloid property(absorbs up to 40% water) due to the
presence of carrubine and seldom if ever is it used used or considered as
a true functional food for its prebiotic action fibres . The list is very
long. Can we consider this a great advancement in the pharmaceutical/
nutritional sector, or an innovative futuristic conception of food and
the first step towards food pills?
|Among food-related nutraceuticals other than yogurt, there
are above all the fruit and vegetables rich in antioxidants. Leutine,
useful for sight, is found in spinach, kale, broccoli and eggs .
Curcumine the yellow pigment is found in curry and saffron. We have
isoflavones in legumes. Yeast contains amino acids, carbohydrates,
proteins, minerals and vitamins. Pycnogenol from the bark of the
maritime pine is useful for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases
and dermatological complaints. From grape skin and the famous win
polyphenols resveratrol is extracted and used . In tea there is theanine
and theine. As for the polyphenols, carotenoids, folic acid, vitamins,
minerals, melatonin, carnitine and Omega3 are all well known. The
Mediterranean diet includes: a daily intake of fruit, vegetables, milk,
dairy products, olive oil, complex carbohydrates, a weekly intake of
white meat and fish, and an occasional intake of red meat and sweet
foods. It was therefore attempted to reproduce in pill form the active
ingredients found in the Mediterranean diet. But, as a general rule,
the natural substances consumed as fresh food or fresh extracts are
always more active than other preparations because of the absence of
deterioration due to processing, and greater intestinal absorbability.
For decades nutritional recommendations of various national and
supranational organisms were more focused on “what not to eat”
without prejudicing an adequate intake of essential nutrients such as
amino acids and essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and water. It
was recommended to limit the intake of substances such as saturated
fatty acids, cholesterol and sodium.
|Scientists now recognize that the other aspect of nutrition, that is
“what to eat,” can be just as important or even more important. It is
believed that people who follow a diet rich in natural foods such as
fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grain and fish, tend to have a lower risk
of disease. The incidence of certain cancers and cardiovascular diseases
is significantly lower than in populations where the consumption of
these foods is lower. For a long time, some nutritionists believed that
these observations were more of a random combination than a causeeffect
relationship. In other words, the highest incidence of disease is
the result of a high intake of meat, having a larger body fat index and
a low level of physical activity, associated with a low consumption of
fruit and vegetables for example, rather than the lack of these foods.
Thus, the recommendations were focused on limiting the number of
certain ’bad’ foods and replacing them with food not-associated with
degenerative diseases, and considered “good” rather than unhealthy.
Over time and with the progress of analytical methods, the composition
of ‘good’ foods has been better defined and it was soon realized that
many natural foods can be used both for prevention and as an adjuvant therapy for specific diseases. Today we think that actually there is
a closer link between man and nature. This provides us not only the
essential components of the diet but also specific factors that protect us
from the environment in which we live and the potentially pathological
situations that we develop within us. Nutrients were, as is the case for
animals and plants from which we derive these foods, an environmental
instrument used to model the human genome. And therefore logical
to assume that eating more raw foods such as fruits and vegetables,
would lead to a healthier life. Technological progress has allowed us
not only to understand better the characteristics of the diet we eat, but
has also opened the door to an interesting commercial enterprise. Food
manufacturers are now able to market foods that defend the right to
good health, ensuring the neutraceutical properties themselves, they
are also capable of “enhancing” neutraceutical foods by using existing
substances and/or create new foods designed to include one or more
neutraceutical substances in their preparations. The opportunities for
the food industry involved in the production of functional foods, would
seem to be unlimited.
|In recent years, the concept of food has undergone a radical
transformation to the extent that food is not only attributed with
nutritional and sensory properties but it also has an important role
in good health maintenance, psycho-physical well-being and the
prevention of certain diseases. Surely there are various factors that
have contributed to this development of this new interpretation of
nutrition and certainly an important contribution is derived from
the many scientific studies that have shown in the last decade, with
plenty of experimental data, the close link that exists between nutrition
and health. Functional foods are tangible evidence of this historic
transformation that is occurring around food. Despite the different
interpretations as to their identity, to functional food is required to
have a beneficial effect on human health, maintaining a state of wellness
or to be able to prevent the onset of certain diseases. Recently, several
pieces of work have appeared in the literature that highlights not only
the importance of the food matrix but also the production process
on the bioavailability of the active components of functional foods.
Unfortunately in the literature there is still little experimental work
done, related to the bioavailability of active ingredients of functional
foods. Furthermore, the strong influence of the food matrix on the gastrointestinal absorption of active substances, and therefore on
their bioavailability, does not allow the use of the numerous data in
the literature and data relating to certain biological activities in vitro
for the individual components of a functional food. In fact, although
being active in vitro, they may not exert any beneficial effect when
administered in vivo due to their poor bioavailability potential. In the
case in which the “claim” a functional food makes with regards to the
capacity to prevent a given disease, eg. biophenols and the preventative
effect of red wine  against cardiovascular disease. Here the health
potential will be highlighted or be shown by epidemiological studies
(long and costly) or by demonstrating the inhibition of a biological
process that is expected to contribute to the ‘onset of the disease, eg.
the inhibition of the oxidation of LDL in order to demonstrate the
protective effect against cardiovascular disorders. Different is the case
of products derived from food, which are able to enhance the body’s
defenses against a given disease to the point that the positive effects
of their supplementation may be easily and immediately experienced
by those who use them. Recently, for example, a dietary supplement
(Anallergy) has been introduced into pharmacies. It contains an extract
from a variety of Pantelleria caper (Capparis spinosa)  which,
together with other extracts from the food matrix, is able to power the
body to the point that it is able to counteract the harmful effects caused
by allergens in allergic subjects. In this case the effectiveness of the
product can be highlighted by the same allergic subjects who, in taking
the product, are able to evaluate the benefits with immediacy in respect
to the symptoms triggered off by exposure to allergens. In light of the
above mentioned, it is clear that the development of functional foods
will depend greatly on the scientific literature that will be necessary
to give more scientific value and authority to what these products are
capable of, which in our opinion is to have an important role in health
management and human welfare.
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