Over the past few years, I’ve heard more and more about functional foods and noticed products on the grocery store shelf making claims about improving health. I have read some information on the topic, but I find it confusing and a bit overwhelming. Can you tell me what a functional food is, if I should be eating more of these foods and, if so, how to add these foods into my diet?
A whole industry has recently evolved around functional foods, with a myriad of products lining the shelves of grocery and health food stores. Surprisingly, there is no worldwide-standardized definition of a functional food, also referred to as nutraceuticals or designer foods, even though the concept and its terminology were first proposed in Japan in the mid 1980s. While many definitions exist, Health Canada has stated that a functional food is, “similar in appearance to, or may be, a conventional food, is consumed as part of a usual diet, and is demonstrated to have physiological benefits and/or reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions.”1 Whereas, the American Dietetic Association has defined a functional food as those foods that, “move beyond necessity to provide additional health benefits that may reduce disease risk and/or promote optimal health.”2
Although functional foods remain poorly defined, most agree that they are healthy foods or food components, which offer benefits beyond those of traditional nutrients and may improve health. In this role, the physiologically active food component, such as omega-3 fatty acids in flax or fish oils and beta-glucans from oats and barley, may reduce the risk of developing some diseases.
With greater access to information, today’s well-versed consumer is driving the rise in popularity of functional foods and the increasingly expansive number of commercial products available. As a population, we are becoming more proactive, taking responsibility for our own health and wellbeing. This keen interest in our health, partnered with rapid advances in the scientific evidence supporting functional nutrition, and the significant progress in agricultural technology, have all contributed to the accelerated recent attention to functional nutrition. Individuals are looking to foods, and their components, to offer benefits that extend well beyond basic metabolic and nutritional requirements. Consumers are looking to food as preventative medicine; as a readily accessible natural way to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes; to promote optimal weight; to support memory and mental wellbeing; and to enhance overall health. Not surprisingly, public surveys reveal that the majority of consumers believe that some foods have additional health benefits beyond simple nutrition. These same surveys support the notion that the majority of individuals want to know more about functional nutrition.3
The most basic functional foods are whole foods. Vegetables such as spinach and kale, rich in the carotenoid lutein, may support healthy vision; tomatoes, rich in lycopeine, may contribute to prostate health; carrots and pumpkins are a significant source of beta-carotene, which may enhance cellular antioxidant defences; and berries and cherries, a source of anthocyanins, appear to have the same effect as beta-carotene. Of the various functional foods (see chart), some nutrition experts consider salmon to top the list due to the presence of omega-3 fatty acids, linked to a decreased risk of heart disease. Other highly touted functional foods include oats, blueberries, low-fat milk, and low-fat yogurts that contain sufficient active bacterial cultures. You will note that all of these foods are readily available conventional foods and you probably already have them in your home.
In addition to whole foods, other functional items are those that the food industry fortifies with a bioactive compound. For example, the addition of folate to breakfast cereals, calcium-enriched orange juice, and fibre-enriched breakfast bars.
Although much more research is required to fully understand the potential benefits of functional foods, and to identify what quantities are required to realize the desired effect, it is obvious that these foods, when partnered with a balanced diet and physical activity, support good health. To benefit the most from functional nutrition, eat a variety of wholesome foods as outlined in Canada’s Food Guide,4 incorporating foods with beneficial components on a regular basis. Remember to focus on food rather than supplements as natural food sources often contain other, complementary bioactive compounds. Be a savvy consumer and read labels. Just because a food is marketed as having superior nutritional properties, it does not mean that the food is nutritious and a good choice. For example, the addition of wheat bran to a breakfast cereal or the addition of flax to a cereal bar might seem like a good idea, but a closer look could reveal the breakfast cereal to be high in sugar and the cereal bar high in saturated fat. Finally, look to credible sources such as Health Canada5, the International Food Information Council (IFIC)6, or the American Dietetic Association7, to help keep abreast of the rapidly evolving science of functional nutrition.
The following list has been adapted from the Dairy Council of California’s publication entitled, The Quest for Optimal Health: How Functional Foods Can Help Your Clients.8 The list outlines a sampling of some common functional foods, the active components, some potential health benefits, and simple tips to help you add more of these foods into your diet.
|Food||Potential benefit||Active component(s)||How to incorporate into your diet|
|Almonds||May reduce the risk of heart disease||Monounsaturated fatty acids, fibre, vitamin E||Have a handful of almonds as a snack.Add slivered almonds to a spinach or mixed greens salad.Add almond butter to a smoothie.|
|Blueberries||May reduce the risk of cancer||Anthocyanin, fibre||Add fresh or unsweetened frozen blueberries to oatmeal.
Throw a handful of blueberries into a beef or pork stir-fry.
|Chocolate (dark)||May reduce the risk of heart disease||Flavonoids, potassium,
monounsaturated fatty acids
|Melt a small amount of dark chocolate (add a few drops of milk) in the microwave and drizzle over sliced banana, mango pieces, or dried apricots.|
|Cranberries||May improve urinary tract health||Fructose, proanthocyanidins||Add unsweetened frozen cranberries to a smoothie.
Throw a handful of dried cranberries into a chicken or turkey stir-fry.
Add dried cranberries to a spinach salad.
|Flax seed||May reduce the risk of heart disease
May reduce the risk of osteoporosis
|Omega-3 fatty acids,
vitamin E, fibre,beta-carotene, lignans
|Stir flax seed or flax meal into oatmeal, or muffin and homemade bread recipes.|
|Oatmeal||May reduce total
and LDL cholesterol levels
|Beta-glucan, protein||Keep prepackaged individual portions of oatmeal readily available for a quick morning or afternoon snack.
Having a sick day? Have oatmeal as a light meal.
|Salmon||May reduce the risk of heart disease||Omega-3 fatty acids,
protein, vitamins D and E
|Add cooked, flaked salmon into a mixed greens salad.
Blend cooked, flaked salmon with a small amount of low-fat cream cheese; add a small amount of chopped green onion; spread mixture on a fresh whole grain bagel.
|Soy||May reduce the risk of heart disease
May reduce menopausal symptoms
|Omega-3 fatty acids,
vitamins D and E
|Add a few large spoonfuls of soft tofu to any smoothie recipe.
Add chunks of firm tofu to a stir-fry.Enjoy a glass of soymilk on its own, or add to a smoothie.
|Tomatoes||May decrease risk of prostate cancer||Lycopene, vitamin A and C, beta-carotene||Meal idea – add an equal amount of cooked, chilled pasta with quartered tomatoes; toss in chopped cilantro and a handful of raisins and chopped walnuts; finish with a drizzle of olive oil.|
|Yogurt, cultured dairy products||Some strains may improve intestinal health
May decrease the risk of some cancers
|Calcium, vitamins A and D, protein, probiotics||Add a dollop of plain low-fat yogurt to cooked, hot oatmeal.
For a quick tasty dip, mix an equal amount of low-fat cottage cheese with plain, low-fat yogurt; stir in finely chopped, fresh cilantro or dill; add a pinch of salt and pepper.
When making a smoothie, replace ½ of the milk with plain low-fat yogurt.