What Nutraceuticals Can Do For Jamaica

The nutraceutical industry is worth an estimated $270 billion, and that figure is expected to increase to over $600 billion by 2018.  A recent World Intellectual Property Organization Report – Integrating Intellectual Property into Innovation Policy Formulation in Jamaica – noted “According to interview sources, there are as many as 80 plants endemic to Jamaica with medical properties, out of 160 that have been recognized to have such properties worldwide.”

Executive director of the Scientific Research Council (SRC), Dr Cliff Riley, believes that Jamaica is poised to capitalise on an industry that is continuously increasing in market size and reach as people become more health-conscious and return to using their food as medicine.

“Persons are shifting from drugs to natural therapies,” explains Riley. “They’re harnessing the healing powers of plants. [In Jamaica] we’ve gone from what we used to call ‘bush medicine’, to ‘traditional medicine’, and now we call it nutraceuticals.”

Riley sees the emergence of the nutraceutical industry as a positive step for a country like Jamaica, which has a rich history in the use of traditional herbal healing remedies, and ready access to so many healing herbs. “It is validating,” he says. “Through nutraceuticals, we get to translate traditional practices to ways that others can benefit from.”

He also sees it as one more way that science is being made relevant to people’s immediate live. “Science is not just theory. There is a more attractive side to science – applied science. It’s not really worthwhile if it’s not reaching people. It can’t be about publications, promotions, papers, or respect among peers. Science must reach the people.”

He gives the example of medical doctors: “Whenever we are sick, we go to a scientist,” he says with a smile. “Most people don’t stop to think about the fact that a doctor is also a scientist, and it’s science that the doctor is using to help and heal you.”

But Riley also recognises the current trend in healthcare. “People want natural remedies,” he explains. “They don’t want synthetic drugs. Food becomes your medicine. Health is not gastric bypass. It’s your lifestyle – what you’re doing on a daily basis.” Hence the explosion of the nutraceutical industry.

Nutraceuticals in Jamaica

In an attempt to take advantage of this nutraceutical explosion, Jamaica established its National Nutraceutical Industry (NNI) on March 5, 2015. According to their website, the NNI was created specifically with the following objectives:

  • Development of a framework responsible for regulating and monitoring of people,products and facilities

  • Bring under one umbrella practitioners and support agencies in a manner that is systematic and coordinated.

  • Amend the Food and Drug Act under the Ministry of Health to incorporate the classification and registration of nutraceutical products.

  • Build media interest to educate the public and healthcare practitioners of products and trade market impact.

  • Build consumer confidence in these products through the promotion of research and development standardization.

  • Expand the market locally and also to gain a great share of the international global markets.

  • Production of value-added products.

  • Lay the scientific/medical and social ground work to facilitate this emerging and expanding market.

Riley explains why this is important: “Nutraceuticals must go through some scrutiny,” he says, noting that national regulations ascertain product quality, because they facilitate the examination and documentation of every aspect of the production process. “This becomes especially essential if, for example, a person has an allergic reaction to a particular ingredient in a product.” Using the example of honey, Riley says: “All honey is not equal.” He explains that down to the very bark of the tree in which the bees build their hive or the plant from which they get pollen can affect the quality of the honey and the consumer’s experience.

He also inserts a note of caution, warning that consumers have to be careful and vigilant about the products they purchase. “Beware of unregistered products,” he warns. “These compromise the integrity of the nutraceutical industry.”

He notes that the SRC is working assiduously to combat this. “We’ve done extensive work on endemic [plant] species, like bird pepper, cashew bark, guinea hen weed …,” he says. But there are challenges. Chief among them are the regulations stipulations outlined in the Food & Drug Act (composed in the 1970s). The Act makes a clear distinction between what is categorised as “food”, and whst is considered “drugs”, and does not make allowance for a food to be registered as a drug, even if it has medicinal properties and is being marketed for this purpose.

“We have had discussions,” says Riley. “Submissions have been made to Cabinet for amendments to recognize nutraceutical foods as drugs … and to create a more favourable space for safeguarding and improving Jamaica’s nutraceutical industry.” This, Riley believes, will pave the way for the nation to derive the many benefits of the nutraceutical industry.

He laments the fact that most Jamaicans only think of nutraceuticals in terms of “tonics, capsules and tablets”, when in fact, there are myriad jobs that are created in every step of the nutraceutical creation and marketing process. One area he thinks is underutilized is that of functional foods. He says more persons could be marketing foods for their health value. So, for example, instead of just marketing a piece of pumpkin, the marketer would highlight that it is a vitamin-rich food that provides multiple health benefits.

Other jobs he lists include:

  • Farmers
  • Harvesters
  • Transporters
  • Active ingredient extraction
  • Capsule filling
  • Packaging
  • Distribution
  • Lab tests
  • Dossier compilation

He encourages Jamaicans: “Harness health and wellness more. Get into the value chain!”