Introduction

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'Biotechnology' is the name that has been given to a very wide range of agricultural, industrial and medical technologies that make use of living organisms (e.g. microbes, plants or animals) or parts of living organisms (e.g. isolated cells or proteins) to provide new products and services. These include enzymes for food and drink production processes, vitamins, amino acids and other useful chemicals, obtained via fermenter technology. Cell manipulation and genetic engineering techniques are at present the new frontier of biotechnology, especially in the field of plant product improvement.

About 80 per cent of current research in plant biotechnology is directed towards the improvement of food plants; the remaining work is concerned with non-food crops such as cotton, tobacco and ornamental and medicinal plants.

The latter are of obvious social and economic importance. It has been reported by Farnsworth (1985) that a quarter of all prescription drugs used in the USA still contain plant-derived substances isolated from or contained in plant sources. Europe has a very long tradition in phytomedicines, dating back to the first century. Fifty per cent of the world sales of herbal remedies occur in Europe, with a retail sales volume of over $6 billion (Gruenwald, 1998). Within Europe, Germany is the leading country for herbal drugs with annual sales of $2.5 billion, followed by France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium (Gruenwald, 1998).

Concerning the relationship existing between nutrition and human health, a further step in this direction is the idea that some foods of plant origin may supplement human diet by their natural chemical constituents, having therapeutic or at least preventive activity against various kinds of infectious diseases. As in the case of plant drugs, these botanical products and their derivatives are not consumed for a nutritional purpose and include processed or unprocessed plant parts (bark, leaves, flowers, fruits and stems) as well as active constituents, extracts and essential oils. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994 included herbal products in its definition of 'dietary supplements', even though herbs have little or no nutritional value.

Cowan (1999) has noted that the use of and search for drugs and dietary supplements derived from plants have accelerated in recent years. Ethnopharmacologists, botanists, microbiologists and phytochemists are combining their efforts for phyto-chemicals and botanical preparations, which could be developed for treatment of chronic and infectious diseases.

Many of these scientific and socio-economic goals have not yet been completely achieved and biotechnology still remains a tool of choice for research application. Success in maintaining yield and efficiency while improving the ability of the botanical supply to provide good nutrition and health requires the joint efforts of nutrition, food, plant and animal scientists in order that the most effective strategies can be targeted (Scheemann, 2001).

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