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Did you know that the concept of medical food has been around for years? Did you also know there are four main types, each with their own specific use? It's time to take the mystery out of medical food with our handy guide!
Food and Drug Administration Definition
The first thing to do in order to get a better understanding of what medical food actually is is to take a look at the FDA. The organization is responsible, in the US, for maintaining safety standards with regards to human and animal drugs, medical devices, and biological products. They also check cosmetics, food, and any products that emit radiation.
According to their Orphan Drug Act (orphan drugs being the name for medication related to drugs for rare or unusual diseases), medical food is specially processed food that's intended to meet specific nutritional requirements of a disease or condition.
As such, it has to be prescribed by your doctor - it cannot be bought over the counter. It's also different from dietary needs-related food, such as gluten-free products, as it's typically created to a strict and distinctive chemical formula.
Now we have a better understanding of the actual definition, let's look at the four main categories available.
Medical food can be:
- 1) a formula used as the sole form of nutrition for an individual
- 2) a "nutritionally incomplete" formula, which means it's missing an ingredient (e.g. protein) that a person's body is currently unable to process
- 3) oral rehydration products, which are medical equivalents to sports drinks that replace electrolytes
- 4) formulas specifically designed to help manage particular medical conditions/diseases
Many, if not most, types of medical food are marketed under brand names that in some way, reflect the active ingredients. These are a few of the most common, and what they're typically used for.
Specially designed for people suffering from fat malabsorption (e.g., inflammatory bowel disease, cystic fibrosis, HIV infection). This is a nutritionally complete liquid that provides a patient with an easily absorbed fat blend of vitamins and minerals. This product is known by different names outside the US.
Created using Palmitoylethanolamide (PEA), which is a fatty acid usually created by the human body. It can be used by people whose bodies either don't produce enough PEA naturally or suffer from chronic/neuropathic inflammation and pain.
Typically used by those suffering renal failure. Renax is a nutritionally incomplete formula with the primary aim to replace and replenish vitamin and mineral deficiency in a patient. It's also linked with ergocalciferol, a form of vitamin D2.
A calorically dense liquid formula (i.e. has a very high-calorie count) most often used to treat inflammation in patients with severely limited food intake. Chiefly for the critically ill or mechanically ventilated patients. The most common conditions Oxepa can be used to treat include SIRS (systemic inflammatory response syndrome and ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome).
The FDA Paradox
Despite the fact that the FDA has a precise classification for what constitutes as a medical food, they don't actually regulate them; they're not technically a drug, since many incorporate natural products in their formula.
Instead, they're graded like many food additives (including pepper, vinegar, and chemical preservatives) as to whether they're Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). For the FDA to grant this classification, the producer of the additive/medical food has to put the ingredient through similar safety tests as drugs (e.g. to make sure it won't cause awful side effects).
For this reason, medical food falls into a kind of gray area, wherein a physician should prescribe it, but you may encounter related products (e.g. isotonic sports drinks) in your local supermarket. This is why you may notice such products are often labeled with disclaimers along the lines of consulting a medical professional if you intend to use the product therapeutically.
Medical food should only be used if it's been prescribed to you. There are cheap alternatives to many of the products mentioned here, but as a general piece of advice, they should be avoided (they may not be classified as GRAS). Finally, it's not an actual cure for anything; instead, it's designed to help alleviate pain or make a disease/condition more manageable to live with.