What are functional foods and what should you know about them and basic nutrition? Functional food products are often refined, fortified, and processed food.
Since consumers began to play such a central role in deciding their own food choices and dietary requirements, there’s been a growing interest in different kinds of ‘functional’ foods. Of course, all foods are functional in that they provide nutrition, but some foods contain naturally occurring nutrients which might help address some health concerns. Additionally, some food producers include extra nutrients aimed at providing consumers with a healthier meal. But what are functional foods, and do nutrition and fitness professionals like Tony Horton include them in their diet?
What Are Functional Foods? Here’s What You Need To Know
There’s no generally accepted definition of ‘functional foods,’ which are sometimes called ‘nutraceuticals’ or ‘designer foods,’ but to be categorized as such, they must offer an additional nutritional benefit. The Canadian definition describes foods which, “…have physiological benefits and/or reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions.”1 The U.S. dietetic association goes further, to include:
“…whole foods and fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods [which] have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis, at effective levels.”2
The idea of enhancing or enriching food isn’t new. In the 1980s, the Japanese government recognized that Japan’s rapidly ageing population was likely to generate very high healthcare costs unless the quality of life for the elderly could be improved, and took steps to create Foods for Specified Health Use (FOSHU).3 These food products are loaded with functional ingredients – special nutrients which are clinically proven to support health, such as:
- Chitosan (a sugar derived from shellfish) and soybean protein, which have been shown to support healthy cholesterol levels.
- Wheat albumen and guava tea polyphenols, which support healthy blood sugar levels.
- Lactic acid bacteria and other probiotics which support gut health.4
Foods are labeled FOSHU only after stringent tests to prove they are effective.5 A less rigorous system allows some foods to be labeled, ‘Foods With Functional Claims,’ and there are now several thousand available. Many experimental foods, drinks, and supplements fell by the wayside, but the market continues to grow, accounting for $8 billion of sales in 2018.6
The Truth About Functional Food: Is It Refined Or Processed Food?
When shopping, you might have seen labels which boast that a certain brand of milk is ‘enriched,’ or that a breakfast cereal is ‘fortified.’ These are similar ideas – adding an ingredient for health reasons – but they’re different in practice.
Enriching means adding back in a nutrient which was stripped out during manufacturing. Bread and white flour are good examples. Since many people prefer baking with white flour rather than whole wheat, manufacturers remove the outside of the wheat grain (called the hull). The problem is, this process eliminates most of the iron and B-vitamins, and so these nutrients are artificially added to the white flour or white bread before they leave the factory.7 Although it may sound as though ‘enriched’ bread has been made healthier, remember that whole wheat bread offers the same nutrients without the additional processing.8
In the same way, the process that skims milk fat from whole milk to yield 1% and 2% milk removes most of the vitamin A. This important, fat-soluble nutrient supports eyesight and immune function, and so it must be added later in the process.
Fortified foods have added nutrients which are not present in the natural food. As you can see, milk falls into both categories; milk is enriched by the re-addition of vitamin A, but also, since 1933, Vitamin D has been introduced to milk to aid the absorption of naturally occurring calcium and to help prevent rickets.9
Other fortified products include fruit juices (with added calcium and vitamins), whole grains, pasta and flour (fortified with folic acid and iron), and cereal (with added iron, calcium, and other minerals).
Fortification And Bioactive Compounds: The Science Of Functional Foods
The explosion of interest in functional foods has led to a new phenomenon. In pursuing ‘self care’ by making very specific dietary choices based on our own research and the response of our bodies – how we feel, the way we work, how well we sleep – we have shifted our search from the medicine cabinet to the kitchen cabinet.10 Here are just some of the functional foods now available, with their sources and potential health benefits:
- There’s good evidence that plant sterols and stanols, which are added to margarine, may help support healthy cholesterol levels. The same is true of both soy protein and β-Glucan, a polysaccharide sugar found in whole oats.11,12
- The Omega-3 fatty acids in fish (especially salmon, herring, and sardines) have been shown to support heart health.13
- Green tea contains natural antioxidants called catechins which may help prevent cell damage.14
- Naturally occurring probiotics in yogurt can support gut health.15 The same is true of the natural collagen and gelatin in bone broth.16
- Grapefruit offers phytochemicals and vitamin C; eating a grapefruit starter may help support healthy cholesterol levels and weight loss.17,18
- New kinds of plant foods containing soluble fiber are being developed to provide gut-healthy options.19
- Fermented foods are being shown to have important implications for mental health.20
- Whole grains are thought to offer greater benefits than their milled variants.21
The Most Functional Diet Is A Well-Balanced One With A Focus On Healthy Food Groups
When deciding what ingredients to cook with, it’s tempting to gravitate toward apparently beneficial functional foods to enhance one or more aspects of our wellbeing. For example, heart health can be boosted by eating soybeans, flaxseed, garlic, fish, and grapes; certain kinds of nuts and plant stanols can also support heart health.22 However, these aspects are worth bearing in mind:
- Many FOSHU-type products are expensive and may not be suitable for everyone. Remember that the original concept of functional foods was to meet a very specific dietary need among a particular population, not to boost health in society generally.
- Some types of fortification may result in additional sugar (e.g., from added flax in breakfast cereal).23
- Synthesized variants of vitamins and minerals may be absorbed differently in the body, compared to the originals. This might make absorption more or less efficient.24
- Some manufacturers fortify products with a large portion of our Recommended Daily Amount for a given mineral, and sometimes over 100%.
- This makes it difficult for the body to absorb the nutritional benefit before the source is digested. Although the dangers aren’t significant, ingesting large amounts of any mineral raises the risk of toxicity.25,26,27
The Bottom Line: Should You Add Functional Foods To Your Diet?
The good news is that you probably eat plenty of ‘functional foods’ already. Make sure your meal plans include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meat, fatty fish, and whole grains. Be aware that many ‘functional foods’ are highly processed (especially cereal, bread, and pasta). Adding small amounts of ‘superfoods’ like blueberries, kale, chia seeds, and probiotic yogurt to your diet may support your overall health, but you cannot rely on fortification or enrichment to fill nutritional gaps. A healthy diet is best viewed and designed ‘in the round,’ making sure you encounter a broad range of foods and nutrients every day.28 Talk to your doctor about whether or not including functional foods in your diet is right for you.
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