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The ‘alternative’ remedies

Over-the-counter health products are much in demand these days, but are they beneficial?

health and fitness Updated: Aug 27, 2012 02:04 IST
Jaya Shroff Bhalla

Anju Mehta, 54, who has had diabetes for 23 years, started having bottled gooseberry (amla) juice and bitter-gourd juice as health supplements two years ago. She says the juices help keep her blood sugar under control.

Narpat Singh, 65, and his wife Sanjana, 61, have substituted natural sugar with stevia drops extracted from a South American plant. “Besides being a zero-calorie sweetener, it reduces blood glucose levels and also boosts insulin creation. It also keeps blood pressure in check,” said Singh, who took to this expensive natural sweetener a year ago.

Giving in to the growing demand, not only chemist shops but even general stores such as Bharti Walmart and Godrej Nature’s Basket have started stocking nutraceuticals or health products — ranging from vegetable juices, energy drinks, sugar supplements, multivitamins, weight loss pills and skin tightening lotions — all of which claim to have preventive effects.

Recently, GenLife, which first introduced Japanese health products in India last year, launched Graminex LLC — a US brand producing a range of dietary supplements. Guardian Pharmacy stocks all General Nutrition Centre (GNC) healthcare products for men, women and children. Himalaya Healthcare and Apollo Hospitals are among the leaders in non-prescription healthcare products in India.

“There is a definite demand for these products but the only problem is that 99% of the products available in the market are not backed by research. The Indian market is at a nascent stage and the consumer by and large is unaware,” said Sandeep Jha, promoter, Genlife.

“While the worldwide market for nutraceuticals was worth $124 billion in 2010, India’s share was only $1 billion, which is less than 1%. Lifestyle diseases are on the rise in India and prevention is the key, and these products play the role,” said Jha.

According to a global survey by Frost and Sullivan, a business research firm, the nutraceutical market valued at $1,480 million in 2011 could grow to $2,731 million by 2016. The survey also found that dietary supplements accounted for 64% of the nutraceutical market in India.

While the nutraceutical manufacturers are busy expanding businesses, doctors aren't happy with this trend. “Most of the products (nutraceuticals) are not scientifically tested. Some years ago, I received a couple who were suffering from severe lead poisoning. They were taking some herbal pills for diabetes. We got the pills lab tested and found them to be highly toxic,”said Dr MP Sharma, head of medicine at Rockland Hospital, who also received a patient two years back who died after consuming bottle gourd juice. The patient's wife was lucky enough to survive after days of hospitalisation.

“These are home remedies that have passed down from one generation to another and these drug manufacturers are only cashing in on the sentiment and vulnerable patients are treating these ‘medicines’ as alternative remedies, which they are not,” said Dr Ashok Seth, chairman, cardiac sciences at Fortis Escorts Heart Institute, who says half the patients admitted to his care have nutraceuticals as part of their daily diet.

“There could be some health benefits but there are no studies to back these claims. For example, there was this widespread belief that antioxidants are beneficial for the heart but random studies on patients showed no positive effects but the belief carried on and so we see patients popping these pills and powders,” said Dr Seth.

Dr Pradeep Chowbey, director, bariatric surgery at Max Healthcare, who says that 100% of his patients have tried their hands at weight-reduction pills, which are available off the shelves.

“There is a yo-yo effect. Most gain more than they lose when they stop taking these pills. These non-prescription pills may help shed a few pounds but the long-term effects can be disastrous," he said.

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