What are functional foods? As of yet, there is no universally accepted definition of the term; however, in general the classification refers to unmodified whole foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables), modified foods (e.g., enriched and fortified products), and beverages that provide some health benefit above and beyond mere nourishment. That is, these foods have been shown to enhance health and/or protect against disease.
What Makes a Food Functional?
- Phytochemicals/phytonutrients. These substances include enzymes, fiber, vitamin-like compounds, and pigments that are found in plant-based foods (e.g., fruit, vegetables, and grains). Phytochemicals have been shown to reduce the risk for certain cancers (e.g., prostate), protect against heart disease, and decrease the chances of developing degenerative eye disease. Some of the better known phytonutrients include polyphenols (found in red wine, chocolate, and green tea), flavonoids (present in cherries, berries, and tomatoes), and carotenoids (found in carrots, tomatoes, yams, and kale).
- Prebiotics. This term refers to nondigestible food components that stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria and its activity in the intestine. Examples include insoluble fiber and fructo-oligosaccharides (carbohydrate molecule). Their presence may offer protection against infectious diseases of the intestinal tract, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
- Probiotics. These organisms are live “friendly” bacteria, such as lactobacillus, that aid in digestion and enhance intestinal health. They can be found in fermented dairy products.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Omega-3’s are found in fatty fish and some plant-based foods such as flaxseed. These fatty acids have been shown to lower your risk for heart disease and to improve brain health.
- Calcium-rich. A lower risk for colon cancer and the development of hypertension (high blood pressure) are associated with these foods, as is weight management.
The health benefits derived from functional foods are most likely due to an interaction of the various components present in the food – a combination of bioactive and physiological processes that are not yet fully understood. Therefore, as of yet, their health promoting and disease preventing effects cannot be fully replicated in a supplemental pill. To reap the benefits of functional foods, it is best to eat a varied diet on a regular basis.
Have you experienced a change in health by including a variety of functional foods in your diet? Share with us, we want to know!
Sources for more information:
American Dietetic Association’s Complete Food and Nutrition Guide, 3rd edition, Duyff, R.L.
BodyEcology.com “Why Prebiotics are Essential to Your Heart Health & Immune System, July 2, 2008, Gates, D.