The term nutraceutical has no regulatory definition in the United States, but they are defined as substances either isolated from foods, or found in foods that have a proven physiological benefit. Food processing companies often incorporate nutraceuticals into their products to enrich processed foods, enhancing their nutritional and health values. The body does not easily absorb conventional nutraceuticals because they are too large to be absorbed into the cell structure. Additionally, existing micro and nano nutraceutical emulsions are often only stable in oils and fats, creating health trade-offs that sometimes outweigh the added benefits of adding these phytochemicals.
Certain nutraceuticals such as curcumin—the natural form of vitamin E-100 found in turmeric—serve dual purposes as both food coloring and anti-inflammatory/anti-oxidant agents in foods. There are a number of other phytochemicals that can be used as food additives, such as dibenzoylmethane (from licorice), lycopene, beta-carotene, and vitamin-D. These and other neutraceuticals can be used to protect those who eat highly processed foods from chronic diseases associated with a low-nutritional diet.
Food scientists and researchers are develioping new ways to improve neutraceuticals and the nutritional value of processed foods. Nanoemulsion techniques can increase the water solubility, increase the absorption, and decrease the amount of nutrients required to make foods more nutritious. Nanoemulsions are currently made via high-pressure homogenization, but other techniques such as ultrasonic homogenization and electrified coaxial jet emulsification are being used in lab settings to further enhance the stability and absorption of nutraceuticals. Additionally, researchers are developing nanoencapsulation techniques using micellar cells for more targeted nutrient delivery.
The risks associated with nanoemulsions at this time are uncertain due to the fact it is unknown how the toxicity of phytochemicals changes when broken down to the nanoscale. Some nutrients and supplements can be harmful in high doses at the micro scale, and may have much different physiological effects at the nano scale. Many of the nutraceuticals used today have been shown to have modest to significant effects on cholesterol, blood pressure, or blood sugar, and are the basis of a number of chemically synthesized prescription medications. Engineering these nutraceuticals at the nano scale may significantly impact the dosage and response of these nutrients, essentially forcing food processing companies to become as knowledgeable on dose response as doctors and nutritionists.