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Functional Foods Explained


Nutrition in the Real World

Functional Foods: What Role Do They Play in Your Diet?

Have you ever eaten broccoli?

Odds are that you have, but you may not have known that you were eating a functional food. In fact, some people have even called broccoli a superfood.

Although there isn’t a legal definition for either of these terms, a commonly used definition for a functional food is one that has been shown to have a positive effect on your health beyond its basic nutrients (“super food” is a more trendy term often used in the media to highlight that a food has functional and healthy properties).

Broccoli is a functional food because it is rich in beta-carotene, which, in addition to being a key source of vitamin A, helps protect your cells from damaging substances that can increase your risk of some chronic diseases, such as heart disease. In other words, the betacarotene’s function goes beyond its basic nutritional role as a source of vitamin A, because it may also help fight heart disease. Broccoli is also a cruciferous vegetable, which, along with cauliflower and brussels sprouts, is part of the cabbage family. These vegetables contain compounds such as isothiocyanates, which may also be “super” at fighting cancer.

Oats are also a functional food and sometimes also referred to as a super food, because they contain the soluble fiber beta-glucan, which has been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels. This can play a positive role in lowering the risk for heart disease. If the beneficial compound in the food is derived from plants, such as in the case of beta-carotene, isothiocyanates, and beta-glucan, it is called a phytochemical (phyto = plant). If it is derived from animals it is called a zoochemical (zoo = animal). Heart-healthy, omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, are considered zoochemicals. The accompanying table provides a list of currently known compounds in foods that have been shown to provide positive health benefits. Manufacturers are promoting foods containing naturally occurring phytochemicals and zoochemicals and have also begun fortifying other food products with these compounds. You can buy margarine with added plant sterols and a cereal with the soluble fiber, psyllium, which both help to lower blood cholesterol levels, as well as pasta and eggs that have had omega-3 fatty acids added.

Are People Buying Functional Foods?

Yes, people are buying them. Americans spent more than $31 billion in 2008 on functional foods and beverages, and the market is predicted to grow to more than $40 billion through 2013 as more consumers take a self-care approach to their health. 9 In one survey of 1,000-plus American adults, more than 55 percent were changing the types of foods they eat  in order to improve  their health.

Baby boomers, in particular-the generation of people born between 1946 and 1964-are eager not only to live longer than their parents, but also, to live better. They are turning to functional foods to fight heart disease, aid in diminishing joint pain, prevent memory loss, and help them keep their eyesight healthy.

What Are the Benefits of Functional Foods?

Functional foods are being used by health care professionals to thwart patients’ chronic diseases and, in some situations, as an economical way to treat a disease. For example, many doctors send their patients to a registered dietitian (RD) for diet advice to treat specific medical conditions, such as an elevated blood cholesterol level, rather than automatically prescribing cholesterol-lowering medication. Eating a diet that contains a substantial amount of cholesterol-lowering oats or plant sterols is less expensive, and often more appealing, than taking costly prescription medication. Ideally, the RD, who is trained in the area of nutrition, can recommend the addition of functional foods to the diet based on the person’s own medical history and nutritional needs.

However, problems can arise when consumers haphazardly add functional foods to their diets.

What Concerns Are Associated with Functional Foods?

With so many labeling claims now adorning products on supermarket shelves, consumers have an array of enhanced functional foods from which to choose. Having so many options can be confusing. Consumers often cannot tell if a pricey box of cereal with added “antioxidants to help support the immune system” is really better than an inexpensive breakfast of oatmeal and naturally antioxidant-rich orange juice. There is also a concern that after eating a bowl of this antioxidant-enhanced cereal, consumers may think they are “off the hook” about eating healthfully the rest of the day. Often, more than one serving of a functional food is needed to reap the beneficial effect of the food compound, but the consumer hasn’t been educated appropriately about how much of such a food to consume. Finally, while functional foods do convey health benefits, they are not magic elixirs that can negate a poor diet. The best way to use functional foods is as part of a healthy diet that can help prevent adverse health conditions from occurring in the first place.

As with most dietary substances, problems may arise if too much is consumed. For example, whereas consuming some omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce the risk of heart disease, consuming too much can be problematic for people on certain medications or for those at risk for a specific type of stroke. A person can unknowingly over consume a dietary compound if his or her diet contains many different functional foods enhanced with the same compound.

Also, functional beverages, such as herbal beverages or vitamin-enhanced water, can have more calories and added sugar than cola. How to Use Functional Foods Functional foods can be part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Keep in mind that whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy vegetable oils, lean meat and dairy products, fish, and poultry all contain varying amounts of naturally occurring phytochemicals and zoochemicals and are the quintessential functional foods. If you consume other, packaged functional foods, take care not to overconsume any one compound. Seek out an RD for sound nutrition advice on whether you would benefit from added functional foods, and, if so, how to balance them in your diet.

Did you know that certain foods or food components may provide health and wellness benefits?

These foods, also known as “functional foods,” may play a role in improving overall well-being and reducing or minimizing the risk of certain diseases and other health conditions. Examples of these foods include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fortified foods and beverages and some dietary supplements. Functional characteristics of many traditional foods are being discovered and studied, while new food products are being developed to include beneficial components. By knowing which foods can provide specific health benefits, you can make food and beverage choices that allow you to take greater control of your health.


Consumer interest in the relationship between diet and health has increased the demand for information about functional foods. Factors fueling U.S. interest in these foods include the rapid advances in science and technology, increasing healthcare costs, changes in food laws affecting label and product claims, an aging population and rising interest in attaining wellness through diet, among others.

Health Claims

According to IFIC consumer research, Americans name the media, health professionals, and family and friends as their top sources of information about foods that can promote health. Credible scientific research indicates there are many clinically proven and potential health benefits from food components. Claims on food packages are just one vehicle for informing consumers about these diet and health relationships. In the US, the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act authorized the Food and Drug Administration to create regulations for the use of health claims on foods and dietary supplements. Benefits that are substantiated by scientific research are often communicated to consumers through the product packaging, websites or advertising. Such health-related statements or claims are made according to the applicable regulations and guidelines of the FDA and Federal Trade Commission.

Many academic, scientific and regulatory bodies have developed, or are developing, guidelines to establish the scientific evidence base needed to support and further validate claims for functional components or the foods containing them. FDA regulates food products according to their intended use and the nature of claims made on the package.

Five types of health-related statements or claims are allowed on food and dietary supplement labels:

Nutrient content claims indicate the presence of a specific nutrient at a certain level.

Structure and function claims describe the effect of dietary components on the normal structure or function of the body.

Dietary guidance claims describe the health benefits of broad categories of foods or diets and do not refer to a disease or a health related condition.

Qualified health claims convey a developing relationship between components in the diet and reduced risk of disease, as reviewed by the FDA and supported by the weight of credible scientific evidence available.

Health claims confirm a relationship between components in the diet and reduced risk of disease or health condition, as approved by FDA and supported by significant scientific agreement.

The scientific community continues to increase its understanding of the potential for functional foods and their role in maintaining and optimizing health. 

For benefits to be validated and claims to be made, a strong and reliable body of credible scientific research is needed to confirm the benefits of any particular food or component. 

For functional foods to deliver their potential public health benefits, consumers must be able to rely on the scientific criteria that are used to document such health statements and claims.

Nutrigenomics/ “Personalized Nutrition”

As scientific and technological advances develop in the field of health and nutrition, more focus has been directed toward the emerging field of nutrigenomics, or “personalized nutrition.” The science of nutrigenomics involves the application of the human genome to nutrition and personal health to provide individual dietary recommendations. By using an individual’s unique genetic makeup and nutritional requirements to tailor recommendations, consumers may one day have a greater ability to reduce their risk of disease and optimize their health.

Personalizing nutrition to an individual’s unique genetic makeup has the potential for positive health outcomes overall. Choosing an individualized approach, over a more traditional or general approach, to health and nutrition recommendations can provide consumers with the most appropriate and beneficial information for their specific nutritional needs. While personalized nutrition seems promising, research is still in the preliminary stages, and years may pass before accurate and effective recommendations can be made for individuals. 

Functional foods/foods for health are an important part of an overall healthful lifestyle that includes a balanced diet and physical activity.  People should strive to consume a wide variety of foods, including the examples listed here. These examples are not "magic bullets.” The best advice is to include a variety of foods, as recommended by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and, which would provide many potentially beneficial components.


Zoo chemicals - Compounds in animal food products that are beneficial to human health. Omega-3 fatty acids are an example of zoochemicals.

Phytochemicals - Plant chemicals that have been shown to reduce the risk of certain diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Beta-carotene is a phytochemical.

Functional foods - Foods that have a positive effect on health beyond providing basic nutrients.



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