Nutraceuticals: A Major Regulatory Step That Was Long Overdue

Currently in India the nutraceutical products segment, with surrogate or off-label therapeutic claims, is growing at a reasonable pace.

Many such products are now being directly promoted to the medical profession, just like any other modern medicines, with therapeutic claims not being supported by robust clinical data that can pass through scientific or regulatory scrutiny.

For such use of nutraceutical products, I raised the following two questions in my article on this Blog titled, “Nutraceuticals with Therapeutic Claims: A Vulnerable Growing Bubble Protected by Faith and Hope of Patients” on August 27, 2012: 

  • What happens when the nutraceutical products fail to live up to the tall claims made by the respective manufacturers on their efficacy and safety profile?
  • Are these substances safe in those conditions, even when not enough scientific data has been generated on their long term toxicity profile?

Importance of robust clinical data for any product with therapeutic claims:

For similar claim of therapeutic efficacy in the treatment of a disease condition, any drug would require establishing its pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics with pre-clinical and clinical studies, as stipulated by the drug regulators. Some experts believe that these studies are very important for nutraceutical products as well, especially when therapeutic claims are made on them, directly or indirectly. This also because, these substances are involved in a series of reactions within the body. 

Similarly, to establish any long term toxicity problem with such products, generation of credible clinical data, including those with animal reaction to the products, both short and long term, using test doses several times higher than the recommended ones, is critical. These are not usually followed for nutraceutical products in India, even when therapeutic claims are being made.

Some experts in this field, therefore, quite often say, “A lack of reported toxicity problems with any nutraceutical should not be interpreted as evidence of safety.” 

The current status:

Currently in India, nutraceuticals, herbals and functional foods are covered under the definition of ‘food’ as per Section 22 of Food Safety & Standards Act, 2006. These food products have been categorized as Non-Standardized/special food products. Neither was there any properly framed guidelines related to manufacturing, storage, packaging & labeling, distribution, sales, claims and imports, nor any legal fear of counterfeiting.

A recent reiteration of the need of regulatory guidelines for nutraceuticals:

In a study on ‘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 RNCOS and released by ASSOCHAM on August 17, 2015 the above key apprehensions on the lack of any kind of regulatory guidelines for the approval and monitoring of products falling under this segment, were reiterated.

The market:

According to the above study, 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 a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of about 8 percent.

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 nutraceuticals market. Germany, France, UK and Italy are the major markets in the European Union for nutraceuticals. Japan (14 percent) is the major consumer of nutraceuticals in Asia-Pacific, followed by China (10 percent).

The Indian nutraceuticals market is at a nascent stage now, but fast emerging. India accounts for around 1.5 percent of the global market. However, the above study forecasts that due to rising awareness of health and fitness and changing lifestyle, 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 a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of about 17 percent. 

Phytochemicals in nutraceuticals:

Phytochemicals have been broadly defined as chemical compounds occurring naturally in plants. A large number of phytochemicals, either alone and/or in combination, are currently being used as nutraceuticals with significant impact on the health care system, claiming a number of medical health benefits, including prevention, treatment and even cure of many types of diseases.

The most recent regulatory intervention:

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.

This regulatory action also followed the rapidly growing use of these drugs in India, which includes purified and standardized fraction with defined minimum four bio-active or phytochemical compounds. 

On the ground, this significant regulatory measure would necessarily require the pharma players to submit the specified data on the phytopharmaceutical drug, along with the application to conduct clinical trial or import or manufacture in the country.

The salient features of the notification:

I am summarizing below, only the salient features of the detail notification for obtaining regulatory approval of these drugs in India:

A. Data to be submitted by the applicant:

A brief description or summary of the phytopharmaceutical drug giving the botanical name of the plant: 

- Formulation and route of administration, dosages

- Therapeutic class for which it is indicated

- The claims to be made for the phytopharmaceutical product.

- Published literature including information on plant or product or phytopharmaceutical drug, as a traditional medicine or as an ethno medicine and provide reference to books and other documents, regarding composition, process prescribed, dose or method of usage, proportion of the active ingredients in such traditional preparations per dose or per day’s consumption and uses.

- Information on any contraindications, side effects mentioned in traditional medicine or ethno medicine literature or reports on current usage of the formulation.

- Published scientific reports in respect of safety and pharmacological studies relevant for the phytopharmaceutical drug intended to be marketed.

- Information on any contraindications, side effects mentioned or reported in any of the studies, information on side effects and adverse reactions reported during current usage of the phytopharmaceutical in the last three years, wherever applicable.

- Present usage of the phytopharmaceutical drug ,  –  to establish history of usages, provide details of the product, manufacturer, quantum sold, extent of exposure on human population and number of years for which the product is being sold. 

B. Human or clinical pharmacology information

C. Identification, authentication and source of plant used for extraction and fractionation

D. Process for extraction and subsequent fractionation and purification

E. Formulation of phytopharmaceutical drug applied for

F. Manufacturing process of formulation

G. Stability data

H. Safety and pharmacological information

I. Human studies

J. Confirmatory clinical trials

K. Regulatory status in other countries

L. Marketing information, including text of package inserts, labels and cartons

M. Post marketing surveillance (PMS)

N. Any other relevant information that will help in scientific evaluation of the application


Prior to the above gazette notification, companies marketing nutraceutical products in general and phytochemical products, in particular, used to operate under a very relaxed regulatory framework.

Such products are currently promoted with inadequate disclosure of science based information, particularly with the surrogate therapeutic claims, which are based merely on anecdotal evidence and forms a part of intensive off-label sales and marketing efforts on the part of respective marketing players. It continues to happen, despite the fact that off-label therapeutic claims for any product are illegal in India, just like in many other countries.

Appropriate measures now being taken by the Government on phytochemical drugs, are expected to further plug the regulatory loopholes for off-label therapeutic claims without any robust scientific evidence. This particular regulation would also, hopefully, help curbing marketing malpractices to boost sales turnover of such products.

Considering all this, it appears that this is a major regulatory step taken by the Indian Government that was, in fact, very long overdue. Implemented properly, this would ensure predictable health outcomes and improved safety standards for most of the nutraceutical products, solely keeping patients’ health interest in mind.

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.