Nutraceuticals: Still An Oasis Amidst Well-Regulated Pharmaceuticals

On November 24, 2016, the food-safety watchdog of India announced that health supplements or Nutraceuticals cannot be sold as ‘medicines’ anymore. This new regulatory standard has been set for the manufacturers of Nutraceuticals and food supplements, and is aimed at controlling mislabeling of such brands. The fine prints of the notification are yet to be assessed.

On the face of it, this new announcement seems to be a good step, and would largely address a long-standing issue on the such products. Prevailing undesirable practices of labeling some pharma brands as food supplements or Nutraceuticals, with some tweaking in the formulations, mainly to avoid the risk of price control, is also expected to be taken care of by the food-safety authority of India, while granting marketing approval.

Nevertheless, it is often construed that off-label therapeutic claims, while promoting these products to the doctors, help achieving brand positioning objective as medicines, though indirectly. Appropriate authorities in India should probably resolve this issue, expeditiously.

In this article, I shall focus on the rationale behind different concerns over the general quality standards, claimed efficacy and safety profile of Nutraceuticals and food supplements, in general, and how the regulatory authorities are responding to all these, slowly, albeit in piecemeal, but surely.

The ‘gray space’ is the issue:

The close association between nutrition and health has assumed a historical relevance. Growing pieces of evidence, even today, suggests that nutritional intervention with natural substances could play an important role, especially in preventive health care. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also highlighted that mortality rate due to nutrition related factors in the developing countries, like India, is nearly 40 percent.

However, as one of the global consulting firm of repute has aptly pointed out, “At one end of this natural nutrition spectrum, are functional foods and beverages as well as dietary supplements, aimed primarily at maintaining health. On the other, more medical end of the spectrum, are products aimed at people with special nutritional needs. In the middle, is an emerging gray area of products that have a physiological effect to reduce known risk factors, such as high cholesterol, or appear to slow or prevent the progression of common diseases such as diabetes, dementia or age related muscle loss.”

This gray space between Pharmaceutical and Nutraceuticals, therefore, holds a significant business relevance, from various perspectives.

An Oasis amidst highly-regulated pharmaceuticals:

Mostly because of this gray space, several pharma companies and analysts seem to perceive the Nutraceutical segment virtually an oasis, lacking any transparent regulatory guidelines, amidst well-regulated pharma business. This perception is likely to continue, at least, for some more time.

Such pattern can be witnessed both within the local and global pharma companies, with some differences in approach, that I shall deliberate later in this article.

However, regulators in many countries, including India, have started expressing concerns on such unfettered manufacturing, marketing and other claims of Nutraceuticals. Many of them even ask, do all these Nutraceuticals deliver high product quality, claimed effectiveness and safety profile to their consumers, especially when, these are promoted by several pharma companies, though mostly off-label, to generate physicians’ prescriptions for various disease treatments?

Not just domestic pharma companies:

This concern is not restricted to the domestic companies in India.

Global pharma players, who generally believe in scientific evidence based medicines, have been reflecting an iffiness towards Nutraceuticals. For example, whereas both Pfizer and Novartis reportedly hived off their nutrition businesses, later Pfizer invested to acquire Danish vitamins company Ferrosan and the U.S. dietary supplements maker Alacer. Similarly, both Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline also reportedly invested in mineral supplements businesses that could probably pave the way of the company’s entry into medical foods.

However, it is worth underscoring that generally the consumer arms of global pharma companies focus on OTC, and Nutraceuticals do not become an integral part of the pharma business, as is common in India.

Interestingly, not very long ago, Indian pharma industry witnessed a global pharma major virtually replicating the local marketing model involving Nutraceuticals. It also became an international news. On August 24, 2011, ‘Wall Street Journal (WSJ)’ reported that ‘Aventis Pharma Ltd. (now Sanofi India) agreed to buy the branded nutrition pharmaceuticals business of privately held Universal Medicare Pvt. Ltd for an undisclosed amount, as its French parent Sanofi looks to expand in the fast-growing Indian market.’

Universal Medicare, which posted about US$ 24.1 million revenue in the year ended March 31, 2011, will manufacture these branded Nutraceutical products and Aventis will source them from Universal Medicare on mutually agreed terms. Around 750 of the Universal Medicare’s employees also moved to the French Company along with its around 40 Nutraceutical brands, the report said.

If all these acquired brands, do not fall under the new FSSAI guidelines related to the required composition of food supplements and Nutraceuticals in India, it would be worth watching what follows and how.

Nutraceuticals are also promoted to doctors:

Let me reemphasize, India seems to be slightly different in the way most of the pharma companies promote Nutraceuticals in the country. Here, one can find very few standalone ‘Over the Counter (OTC)’ pharma or Nutraceutical product company. For this reason, Nutraceutical brands owned by the pharma companies, usually become an integral part of their prescription product-portfolio. Mostly, through off-label promotion Nutraceuticals are often marketed for the treatment or prevention of many serious diseases, and promoted to the doctors just as any other generic pharma brand.

Need to generate more scientific data based evidences:

A 2014 study of the well-known global consulting firms A.T. Kearney titled, “Nutraceuticals: The Front Line of the Battle for Consumer Health”, also recommended that ‘a solid regulatory framework is crucial for medical credibility, as it ensures high-quality products that can be relied on to do what they say they do.’

This is mainly because, Nutraceuticals are not generally regarded by the scientific community as evidence based medicinal products, going through the rigors of stringent clinical trials, including pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics studies, and is largely based on anecdotal evidence. Besides inadequacy in well-documented efficacy studies, even in the areas of overall safety in different age groups, other side-effects, drug interactions and contraindications, there aren’t adequate scientific evidence based data available to Nutraceutical manufacturers, marketers, prescribers and consumers.

There does not seem to be any structured Pharmacovigilance study is in place, either, to record adverse events. In this scenario, even the ardent consumers may neither realize, nor accept that Nutraceuticals can cause any serious adverse effects, whatsoever.

From this angle, the research study titled, “Emergency Department Visits for Adverse Events Related to Dietary Supplements”, published in the  New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) on October 15, 2015, becomes very relevant. The paper concluded as follows:

“More than 23,000 emergency department visits annually in the United States from 2004 through 2013 were for adverse events associated with dietary supplements. Such visits commonly involved cardiovascular adverse effects from weight-loss or energy herbal products among young adults, unsupervised ingestion of micronutrients by children, and swallowing problems associated with micronutrients among older adults. These findings can help target interventions to reduce the risk of adverse events associated with the use of dietary supplements.”

Fast growing Nutraceutical industry continues to remain largely unregulated. It persists, even after several previous studies had revealed dangerous levels of harmful ingredients, including amphetamine, in some Nutraceuticals.

Indian regulatory scenario:

In India, the ‘Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)’, established under the Food Safety and Standard Act of 2006, is the designated Government body responsible for the regulation and approval of Nutraceuticals in the country.

In July 2015, FSSAI proposed draft regulations for Nutraceuticals, Functional Foods, Novel Foods and Health Supplements for comments from all stakeholders within the stipulated time limit. This draft regulation defines Nutraceuticals as follows:

“Nutraceuticals means a naturally occurring chemical compound having a physiological benefit or provide protection against chronic disease, isolated and purified from food or non-food source and may be prepared and marketed in the food-format of granules, powder, tablet, capsule, liquid or gel and may be packed in sachet, ampoule, bottle, etc. and to be taken as measured unit quantities.”

In this draft FSSAI also proposed that therapeutic claims of Nutraceuticals and all such foods are required to be based on sound medical and nutritional evidence, backed by scientific as well as clinical evidence.

In 2011, FSSAI constituted a product approval committee, whose members were supposed to use similar parameters as drugs, to assess Nutraceuticals for this purpose. However, FSSAI had to jettison this idea, in compliance with the order dated August 19, 2015 of the Supreme Court questioning the procedure followed for approvals by the food regulator.

In April 2016, FSSAI restricted enforcement activity against Nutraceuticals and health supplement companies to only testing of products till new standards are notified.

The latest regulatory developments:

There are, at least, the following two recent developments reflect that the regulatory authorities, though trying, but are still grappling with the overall product quality, efficacy and safety concerns for Nutraceuticals:

  • Responding to the growing demand for regulatory intervention in this important matter, on November 30, 2015, by a gazette notification, the Government of India included phytopharmaceutical drugs under a separate definition in the Drugs & Cosmetics (Eighth Amendment) Rules, 2015, effective that date.
  • Again, on November 24, 2016, FSSAI reportedly announced that health supplements or Nutraceuticals cannot be sold as ‘medicines’ anymore. This new regulatory standard set for the manufacturers of Nutraceuticals and food supplements is aimed at controlling mislabeling of such brands. On its enforcement, every package of health supplement should carry the words ‘health supplement’ as well as an advisory warning ‘not for medicinal use’ prominently printed on it.

It further added: “The quantity of nutrients added to the articles of food shall not exceed the recommended daily allowance as specified by the Indian Council of Medical Research and in case such standards are not specified, the standards laid down by the international food standards body namely the Codex Alimentarius Commission shall apply.”

However, these regulations will be enforced from January 2018.

Curiously, in September 2016, National Institutes of Health in United States announced plans to put some more scientific eyes on the industry, the NIH reportedly announced plans to spend US$ 35 million to study natural products, ranging from hops to red wine’s resveratrol to grape seed extract. The new grants, reportedly, are expected to fathom the basic science behind many claims that Nutraceuticals can improve health.

The market:

The August 2015 report titled, ‘Indian Nutraceuticals, Herbals, and Functional Foods Industry: Emerging on Global Map,’ jointly conducted by The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) and the consulting firm RNCOS, estimates that the global Nutraceuticals market is expected to cross US$ 262.9 billion by 2020 from the current level of US$ 182.6 billion growing at Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of about 8 percent.

Driven by the rising level of awareness of health, fitness and changing lifestyle pattern, increasing co-prescription with regular drugs, and focus on preventive health care, India’s Nutraceuticals market is likely to cross US$ 6.1 billion by 2020 from the current level of US$ 2.8 billion growing at CAGR of about 17 percent, the report states.

The United States (US) has the largest market for the Nutraceuticals, followed by Asia-Pacific and European Union. Functional food is the fastest growing segment in the US Nutraceutical market, followed by Germany, France, UK and Italy in Europe.

Conclusion:

Today, both manufacturing and marketing of Nutraceuticals keep charting in a very relaxed regulatory space, in India. There are no robust and transparent guidelines, still in place, for product standardization and scientifically evaluate the safety and efficacy of all these products on an ongoing basis. Neither is there any stringent requirement for conformance to the well-crafted cGMP standards.

The reported discussions within the Union Ministry of Ayush for setting up a structured regulatory framework, within the CDSCO, for all Ayush drugs and to allow marketing of any new Ayurvedic medicine only after successful completion of clinical trials to ensure its safety and efficacy, are indeed encouraging. This may be followed for all those Nutraceuticals, which want to be promoted as medicines, claiming direct therapeutic benefits.

Be that as it may, November 24, 2016 announcement of FSSAI, that health supplements or Nutraceuticals cannot be sold as ‘medicines’ anymore to control mislabeling of such brands, is a step in the right direction.

Another major issue of many pharma brands being put under Nutraceuticals with some tweaking in formulations and labelled as food supplements, would also probably be largely addressed, as FSSAI would continue to be the sole authority for marketing approval of Nutraceuticals.

However, it is still not very clear to me, as I am writing this article, what happens to those Nutraceutical brands, which are already in the market, with compositions not conforming to the new FSSAI norms. Fairness demands reformulation and relabeling of all those existing Nutraceuticals, strictly in conformance to the new guidelines, and obtain fresh approval from FSSAI. This will help create a level playing field for all Nutraceutical players in India.

While there is a pressing need to enforce a holistic regulatory discipline for the Nutraceuticals to protect consumers’ health interest, the commercial interest of such product manufacturers shouldn’t be ignored, either. This is primarily because, there exists enough evidence that proper nutritional intervention with the right kind of natural substances in the right dosage form, could play an important role, especially in the preventive health care.

As the comprehensive regulatory guidelines are put in place, Nutraceuticals not being essential medicines, should always be kept outside price control, in any guise or form. In that process, the general pharma perception of Nutraceutical business, as an ‘Oasis’ amidst well-regulated and price-controlled pharmaceuticals, would possibly remain that way, giving a much-needed and well-deserved boost to this business.

By: Tapan J. Ray   

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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