Miracle elixirs or a fad too far: The quest for enduring youth

The foods and drinks sector is producing a growing range of ‘medicinal’ products promising to make us look younger and feel better. Have we unlocked the secret to eternal youth?

Today we’re surrounded by an ever growing range of potions that promise to make us look younger, beverages that stop us absorbing fat, and foods that claim to lower cholesterol better than doctor-prescribed medicines. More and more of these alleged youth and health-enhancing foods – also known as medicinal foods or nutricosmetics because they appear to bridge the gap between food for nutrition and food to fix, change or enhance our body – have found their way onto supermarket shelves in recent years.

Examples include Pure Gold Collagen, a collagen-enriched drink which claims to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines, and Japanese product Kirin Mets Cola, which claims to be the world’s first healthy cola mixed with digestible dextrin to reduce fat absorption during a meal. This product was so popular in Japan after its launch in May 2012 that it topped 50% of its annual sales goal in just two days.

It is estimated that the market for nutricosmetics, defined as nutritional supplements which proposes to support the function and the structure of the skin, alone will be worth $7.4bn (£4.8bn) by 2020.

Avoiding medical trials

Food trend expert for Food Trends TV Dana McCauley says this trend for medicinal foods and nutricosmetics is being driven primarily by baby boomers, the generation now aged 50 to 70, whose quest for enduring youth is matched by a disposable income. McCauley says the trend is particularly pronounced in wealthier countries such as the US “because they have a youth and appearance based culture and the disposable income to indulge their vanity.”

But the concept of medicinal food and beverages is not new. Coca Cola was originally advertised as a “nerve relaxant” and Dr. Kellogg allegedly developed Kellogg Corn Flakes in the late 19th century in the hope that a plain, healthy breakfast would stop his patients masturbating.

Because nutricosmetics and medicinal foods are marketed as food supplements they are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as medicines

Nowadays products with a health claim have to go through the European Food Safety Agency in Europe and the Food and Drugs Administration in the US and manufacturers have to define what the product does, what its active ingredient is and produce evidence that their product works.

This means these products must work, right? Otherwise they wouldn’t get approved and people wouldn’t buy them.

Not exactly. Because nutricosmetics and medicinal foods are marketed as food supplements they are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as medicines or nutraceuticals – for example products such as Benecol yoghurt drink or Flora proactive margarine, which both claim to help lower cholesterol.

For many of these products it is very difficult to prove they actually work and many of the human studies conducted by manufacturers are done on a fairly small scale. For example, bioactive beauty drink Beauty & Go, which claims to contain a macro antioxidant to protect skin cells from oxidative stress, has conducted a trial of only 30 people, while MINERVA Research Labs, makers of Pure Gold Collagen, conducted one trial with only 18 participants. Neither are exactly conclusive large-scale type medical trials.

It’s also difficult to prove that any benefits from such trials are not due to other factors, such as the diet and exercise regimes of the participants.

Collagen infused drinks

Collagen is a much debated example, as there are widely differing opinions about whether ingesting collagen in a drink can stimulate the body to produce more collagen.

Collagen is what makes the skin healthy, elastic and supple but the body loses 1% of its natural collagen every year after turning 20. A number of companies have tapped into the anti-ageing trend with collagen-enriched products that promise to keep skin smooth and radiant.

Image courtesy of Skinade

Image courtesy of Skinade

Skinade, for example, claims that its collagen drink contains ‘high-grade collagen’ which stimulates the body’s natural collagen production. “When the body senses collagen in the blood stream, it stimulates the proliferation of fibroblasts reinforcing the collagen matrix and playing a critical role in wound healing,” the company says on its website, claiming that when consumed on a daily basis the drink “effectively returns your body to a younger state of collagen production, resulting in a visibly more youthful appearance.”

However, many scientists have disputed this theory.

“Collagen would be mainly broken down in the digestive system in your gut, it would be just protein. It is hard to say whether you’d see a great effect from consuming collagen,” says Duane Mellor a registered dietician and British Dietetic Association spokesperson. “It’s a long way to go from your gastrointestinal tract to your skin. How will the body know that this person wants to have less wrinkles but doesn’t want over-production of collagen somewhere else?”

Over-production of collagen in places such as the heart can actually be fatal, Mellor warns, adding: “It is that difference between normal and boosting. You wouldn’t really want anything more than normal collagen synthesis. Drinking more water, eating more fruit and vegetables and generally exercising and looking after yourself better is the best way to improve the quality of your skin.”

While a collagen drink on its own may be harmless, other concoctions have raised concerns. In Japan a collagen-infused beer called Precious, which contains 5% alcohol and two grams of collagen per can, is marketed to women who want to look younger. Alcohol is known to dehydrate the skin and to be a toxin to the body, so encouraging increased consumption of such a product for its alleged health and beauty benefits could be actively harmful.

Overdosing on vitamins

Some vitamin-enriched waters also fall into the medicinal drinks category. Products such as Skinny Water claim to help with natural energy, immunity and muscle recovery. However, although these products might offer a vitamin ‘boost’ they only really work if someone is deficient in a particular vitamin.

If you consume more vitamins than you need you are just generating more expensive urine

“If you consume more vitamins than you need you are just generating more expensive urine,” says Mellor. “Having said that, we do know that young females in the UK population are shown to be quite low in B2 vitamins which can have an effect on energy levels.”

Products such as Benecol and Flora Proactiv that claim to reduce cholesterol, in accordance with EU law, must contain three or more grams of beta glucan, says Mellor.

One particular product, Betavivo, claims to reduce cholesterol as efficiently as statins, a class of drugs often prescribed by doctors to help lower cholesterol levels in patients – a claim which Mellor regards with scepticism. However, there’s good evidence that stanols, which are also found in these foods, reduce cholesterol and it is possible to get far more stanols when it is added to margarine than from normal food alone.

A growing market

Despite the lack of definitive science behind many of these medicinal foods or nutricosmetics, the market is set to grow and consumers can expect more weird and wacky varieties.

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“I’d say that this trend is mainstreaming and is set to be with us for decades,” says McCauley. “My hope is that it leads to innovations that help deliver nutrients that we need for optimal health in more bio-available formats that can help improve the health of everyone on the planet. This has happened in some cases with foods, such as flour [in] Canada [that] is now enriched with important B vitamins.”

However, she adds: “I suspect most innovation will be focused on where the highest profits can be found and that’s likely to be on the more niche products.”

This may result in the lines between health foods, medicines and cosmetics becoming more and more blurred. It will be important for regulators to properly police these products and the claims they make, which will no doubt become more difficult over time as the market grows.

Nevertheless, as most of these products are harmless to the body, is there a problem? Maybe not, as long as they are consumed as part of a healthier lifestyle rather than being regarded as a quick fix solution or a miracle cure.

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