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What Are Functional Foods?

Functional Foods, Nutraceuticals, Phytonutrients

As a physician, I’ve always believed that what you eat plays an important role in how you feel and how healthy you are. As a result, “functional foods” that claim to improve health have become the latest buzzword, but there seems to be confusion as to what these super-powered foods really are. What exactly are functional foods, and do they really have health benefits?

What Are Functional Foods?

Foods naturally contain nutrients that your body needs for optimal health. When you bite into an apple, you get a mouthful of fiber as well as the benefits of the vitamins and minerals it contains. In addition, apples contain phytonutrients that may slow down the aging process and offer protection against certain diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Apples are a type of functional food because they provide health benefits that go beyond simple nutrition. The phytonutrients they contain offer additional protection against disease.

Food manufacturers have taken this idea one step further by enriching or enhancing processed foods with food components that they claim offer additional health benefits. For example, you can now find eggs and yogurt that contain heart-healthy omega-3 fats, orange juice fortified with vitamin D and margarines with plant compounds called phytosterols that help to lower cholesterol levels. Probiotic-enhanced dairy products and salad dressings are another example of functional foods that are growing in popularity.

Do Functional Foods Live Up to Their Hype?

At the simplest level, fruits and vegetables are functional foods because they contain phytonutrients that have benefits that go beyond basic nutrition. These phytonutrients are present in just the right ratio, and they exert their benefits by acting synergistically with each other. On the other hand, food manufacturers are artificially adding these components to food and beverages, hoping they offer the same benefits as getting them in their natural state. Unfortunately, when you isolate out a food component, it doesn’t always have the same effects as when you get it naturally.

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Another problem with manufactured functional foods is the amount of the functional ingredient they contain. For example, when you buy yogurt that’s fortified with the omega-3 DHA, you’ll only getting a small percentage of the DHA you’d get by eating a piece of wild-caught salmon. You’d have to eat a lot of yogurt to equal the amount of DHA in a piece of salmon or a can of sardines.

In addition, just because a functional food you find on a grocer’s store shelf has added probiotics or omega-3s doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthy. Read the label closely, and you may see the product still contains too much added sugar or salt. Some so-called heart-healthy margarines that contain phytosterols also contain small amounts of trans-fat. Do the phytosterols compensate for the trans-fat? Probably not. People believe when they pick up a packaged product with added functional ingredients, they’re automatically eating healthy. No necessarily so.

The Best Functional Foods

The best functional foods are ones you get naturally from fruits, vegetables and unprocessed whole grains that are rich in antioxidants. If you eat a well-balanced diet of whole foods, you probably don’t need manufactured functional foods. An exception might be someone who eats a vegan diet and doesn’t get enough calcium through diet alone. In this case, orange juice fortified with calcium offers a source of calcium they may not otherwise get.

Nature provides us with the perfect blend of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. When you eat a diet of whole foods, these various components interact with each other synergistically, which maximizes their health benefits. Enjoy the health benefits of functional foods, but get them naturally through whole foods.

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The American Society for Nutritional Sciences J. Nutr. 132:3772-3781, December 2002.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “What Are Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals?”

American Dietetic Association. “Functional Foods”