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What is Medical Food?

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  • Written By: Lainie Petersen
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 29 November 2016
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A medical food is a nutritional product designed to address an individual's medical and dietary needs caused by a specific disease or medical condition. Medical foods should not be confused with nutritional supplements or nutritionally enriched foods. Instead, a medical food is formulated to contribute to the management of a disease, not to merely offer nutritional supplementation, and is to be administered on the recommendation and under the supervision of a medical professional. Medical foods may be formulated to be consumed orally or as liquid nutrition administered via tube feeding. The definition and regulation of medical foods can vary by jurisdiction, and the use of the term may be regulated by government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States.

There are some medical conditions that can be alleviated or treated through dietary management, which may include the consumption of a medical food. In the United States, the FDA requires food products labeled as medical food to be formulated with ingredients that have been shown, via accepted scientific methods and medical knowledge, to address the nutritional needs and, in some cases, assist in the treatment of a medical condition. The FDA also requires that such labeling be applied only to specially formulated and processed foods that are part of a physician's care and management plan for a specific patient.

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One well-known type of medical food is infant formula, which is specifically designed to meet the needs of babies who are affected by phenylketonuria (PKU), a condition that prevents them from properly metabolizing phenylalanine, an amino acid. This condition can cause severe developmental disabilities in affected children, but such consequences can be avoided with appropriate dietary management, including the use of special infant formula that is low in phenylalanine. Other types of medical foods include formulations for people with diabetes, gastro-intestinal blockages, and severe allergies.

While many health insurance and health care plans do not cover the cost of nutritional supplements or natural remedies, some do reimburse the cost of medical food, depending on the laws in the jurisdiction where the health care plan or health insurance is offered. In such cases, medical food may be treated as medical equipment or medication, and its costs are at least partially covered by the plan. Such coverage is usually provided only if the medical food is indeed prescribed by a physician and a physician supervises its use.

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