Research theme : Toxins and natural components
The common notion that 'natural' means 'safe' can be most misleading.
Mycotoxins, the best-studied toxins in this field, are natural substances that can be produced by moulds and can be highly toxic.
Humans and animals are both exposed to mycotoxins primarily through their food, exposure through inhalation being however another method of intake that should not be overlooked in the case of specific populations (grain trade, farmers).
Mycotoxins are rarely acutely toxic and, at the concentrations encountered in our Western diet, we tend to speak of "insidious toxins": their negative effects become apparent only years after original exposure. Mycotoxins rarely occur singly; their interaction both among themselves and with other nutrients is thus an important focus for attention.
Normal recommended daily food intake is generally sufficient to provide all essential nutrients.
In recent years, "food supplements" and "functional foods" (sometimes known as "nutraceuticals") have seen rapid growth. Food supplements are frequently based on the active ingredients (bio-active substances) of plants or micro-organisms, which are then offered in a concentrated form (i.e. pills, lozenges, powders, etc.).
Manufacturers of food supplements tend to appropriate the health claims made for the plant, even if food supplements are actually foodstuffs in the first place, though formulated in a way that makes it easier to control the dosage.
Investigation of these claims is particularly tricky, but in most cases the claims are not adequately substantiated clinically. The composition of food supplements is highly variable, unlike the composition of a medication, which is subject to rigorous controls. It is therefore of great importance that the composition of a food supplement should be stated clearly and subject to controls.
An essential concept is "bioavailability", i.e. the degree to which the body takes the active ingredients up. This may vary greatly, depending on the form in which the active ingredient is ingested, also the combination(s) with other foodstuffs.
In the case of mixed herbs, it is conceivable that a mistaken identification could result in the use of poisonous plants or of dangerous concentrations of herbal toxins.
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