Botanicals are thought to offer strong potential against metabolic syndrome as most derive their effectiveness from a mixture of active molecules acting at the same time. Scientists believe that they could find a plant containing multiple agents that reach the numerous different targets of metabolic syndrome.
While research into such compounds continues, companies like Indena and Frutarom's Flachsmann team have begun to offer products that target one or more of the different symptoms making up metabolic syndrome.
According to the most recent definition, drawn up by experts from around the world, people with the metabolic syndrome have central obesity, plus two of four additional factors: raised triglycerides, reduced HDL cholesterol, raised blood pressure, or raised fasting plasma glucose level.
This makes the condition, thought to affect almost a quarter of the populations of the US, UK and several other developed countries, a very complex one to tackle and prevent.
At Vitafoods in Geneva this month, Italian plant extract firm Indena introduced Madeglucyl, produced from the seeds of Eugenia jambolana (also known as Syzygium cumini), an edible plant used as a remedy in Madagascar folk medicine.
It has licensed the extract from a Madagascar institution that has completed a package of toxicological and clinical work on the product, which also has a history of consumption in Europe. Human clinical trials on Madeglucyl done in Madagascar, the US and Germany, have shown that it has a significant effect on blood glucose levels 15 days after starting the treatment.
Extracted from seeds of the plant, each batch of the supplement is said to have at least 20 per cent reduction on glucose levels in rats.
The supplement still only addresses one element of the metabolic syndrome. The Israeli group Frutarom appears to have found a product that tackles several aspects of the condition.
Its EFLA943 olive leaf has shown a strong effect on lowering blood pressure levels in a published animal study and a new clinical trial, not yet published, has confirmed the effects on humans. There is however also some animal data showing its effects on blood sugar levels and it could also help with cholesterol levels by increasing antioxidant levels in the blood.
Stephan Vautravers, head of marketing and sales of the group's pharma division, admitted that most consumers are not yet searching for supplements to tackle metabolic syndrome.
"For the consumer, metabolic syndrome is probably a bit early. But there has been a lot of press out about it, including recent coverage on a major popular TV show in Switzerland," he told NutraIngredients.com.
Media attention is set to increase as the scale of the problem becomes clear. People with metabolic syndrome are twice as likely to die from, and three times as likely to have a heart attack or stroke compared to people without the syndrome. People with metabolic syndrome also have a fivefold greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, if it is not already present.
This puts metabolic syndrome and diabetes way ahead of HIV/AIDS in morbidity and mortality terms yet the problem is not as well recognised, according to the International Diabetes Federation.
For this reason, Vautravers and others in the industry beileve it is worth investing in products that can tackle the condition.
"We will soon see companies thinking about launching products for metabolic syndrome, although at the current stage, they are still targeting certain elements of the condition," he said.
Another firm thinking ahead is DSM. The group's corporate scientist Dr Peter Weber said in an interview last year that "the identification of new bioactive compounds has a very high priority".
"We are in an ageing environment where we need to focus on a kind of prevention, called risk reduction. For example, we need to reduce the risk factors of metabolic syndrome as soon as possible."
The research also suggests that the plant extracts industry could gain a clear edge over conventional treatments for the metabolic syndrome.
Professor Ilya Raskin, based at Rutgers university in the US, which has just been awarded a five-year grant to research botanicals for the condition, said: "When you have a complex condition like metabolic syndrome in which so many things can go wrong, it will not be possible to deal with all of them with just one single chemical."
The multiple agents in botanicals, that can reach multiple targets simultaneously, offer decided advantages over conventional drugs which are each based on one compound that produces one action, said Raskin.