Nutrition Expert- Saba Shaikh, Practicing Clinical Nutritionist, Mumbai.
Functional foods deliver additional or enhanced benefits over and above their basic nutritional value.
The term ‘functional foods’ can be viewed as encompassing a very broad range of products.
Some functional foods are generated around a particular functional ingredient, for example foods containing probiotics, prebiotics, or plant stanols and sterols.
Other functional foods or drinks can be foods fortified with a nutrient that would not usually be present to any great extent (e.g. vitamin D in milk).
Functional foods and drinks may provide benefits in health terms, but should not be seen as an alternative to a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. (1)
What Are Functional Foods?
The term ‘functional’ is sometimes used to describe foods and drinks that are enriched with particular nutrients or substances that have the potential to positively influence health over and above their basic nutritional value. Functional foods are usually similar to foods that are consumed as part of our usual diet. (1)
Some examples include foods fortified with vitamins, minerals, probiotics, or fiber. Nutrient-rich ingredients like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains are often considered functional foods as well (2).
Oats, for instance, contain a type of fiber called beta glucan, which has been shown to reduce inflammation, enhance immune function, and improve heart health (3).
Similarly, fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants, which are beneficial compounds that help protect against disease (4).
Examples of Functional Foods
Functional foods are generally separated into two categories: conventional and modified (2).
Conventional foods are natural, whole-food ingredients that are rich in important nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and heart-healthy fats.
Meanwhile, modified foods have been fortified with additional ingredients, such as vitamins, minerals, probiotics, or fiber, to increase a food’s health benefits.
Here are some examples of conventional functional foods:
Fruits: berries, kiwi, pears, peaches, apples, oranges, bananas
Vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, zucchini
Nuts: almonds, cashews, pistachios, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts
Seeds: chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds
Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, navy beans, lentils
Whole grains: oats, barley, buckwheat, brown rice, couscous
Seafood: salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, cod
Fermented foods: tempeh, kombucha, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut
Herbs and spices: turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cayenne pepper
Beverages: coffee, green tea, black tea
Here are some examples of modified functional foods:
fortified dairy products, such as milk and yogurt
fortified milk alternatives, such as almond, rice, coconut, and cashew milk
fortified grains, such as bread and pasta
fortified cereal and granola
Functional foods are associated with several potential health benefits.
May prevent nutrient deficiencies
Functional foods are typically high in important nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and fiber.
Filling your diet with a variety of functional foods including both conventional and fortified foods can help ensure you get the nutrients you need and protect against nutrient deficiencies.
In fact, since the introduction of fortified foods, the prevalence of nutrient deficiencies has significantly decreased around the globe.
Fortification has also been used to prevent other conditions caused by nutrient deficiencies, including rickets, goiter, and birth defects (5).
May protect against disease
Functional foods provide important nutrients that can help protect against disease.
Many are especially rich in antioxidants. These molecules help neutralize harmful compounds known as free radicals, helping prevent cell damage and certain chronic conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes (6).
Some functional foods are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy type of fat shown to reduce inflammation, boost brain function, and promote heart health (7).
Other types are rich in fiber, which can promote better blood sugar control and protect against conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and stroke. Fiber may also help prevent digestive disorders, including diverticulitis, stomach ulcers, hemorrhoids, and acid reflux (8).
May promote proper growth and development
Certain nutrients are essential to proper growth and development in infants and children.
Enjoying a wide range of nutrient-rich functional foods as part of a healthy diet can help ensure that nutritional needs are met. In addition, it can be beneficial to include foods that are fortified with specific nutrients that are important for growth and development.
For example, cereals, grains, and flours are often fortified with B vitamins like folic acid, which is essential for fetal health (5, 9).
Low levels of folic acid can increase the risk of neural tube defects, which can affect the brain, spinal cord, or spine. It’s estimated that increasing the consumption of folic acid could decrease the prevalence of neural tube defects by 50–70% (10, 11).
Other nutrients commonly found in functional foods also play key roles in growth and development, including omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin B12 (12).
A well-rounded, healthy diet should be rich in a variety of functional foods, including nutrient-rich whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
These foods not only supply your body with the vitamins and minerals it needs but also support overall health.
Modified, fortified functional foods can also fit into a balanced diet. In fact, they can help fill any gaps in your diet to prevent nutrient deficiencies, as well as enhance health by boosting your intake of important nutrients like vitamins, minerals, fiber, heart-healthy fats, or probiotics (13).
” Functional foods may provide benefits in health terms, but should not be seen as an alternative to a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. In order to maximise health and wellbeing, people should be encouraged to avoid smoking, do plenty of physical activity and have a varied diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables. Functional foods do not provide a miracle solution to health problems but may be useful to some people as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle (1) “.