Functional Foods

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What are Functional Foods

"Functional Foods" are foods or dietary components that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition. You can take greater control of your health through the food choices you make, knowing that some foods provide specific health benefits.

Examples include everything from fruits and vegetables to fortified or enhanced foods.

Biologically active components in functional foods impart health benefits or desirable physiological effects.

Functional attributes of many traditional foods are being discovered, while new food products are being developed with beneficial components.

New Found Demand

Consumer interest in the relationship between diet and health has increased the demand for information on functional foods. 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 are among the factors an interest in functional foods.

Credible scientific research indicates many potential health benefits from food components. These benefits could expand the health claims now permitted to be identified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Scientific Criteria

Many academic, scientific, and regulatory organizations are considering ways to establish the scientific basis to support claims for functional components or the foods containing them. Five types of health-related statements or claims are allowed by the US FDA 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

  • qualified health claims convey a developing relationship between components in the diet and risk of disease, as approved by the FDA and supported by the weight of credible scientific evidence available

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

A large 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 have a clear understanding of, and a strong confidence level in, the scientific criteria that are used to document health effects and claims. The scientific community continues to increase its understanding of the potential for functional foods and their role in health.

Functional foods are an important part of wellness that includes a balanced diet and physical activity. Consumers should consume a wide variety of foods, including the examples listed. These examples are not "magic bullets."

The best advice is to include foods from all of the food groups represented on the Food Guide Pyramid, which would incorporate many potentially beneficial components.

Q. What are "functional foods"?

"Functional foods" is simply a convenient way to describe foods or their components which may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition.

In other words, functional foods do more than meet your minimum daily requirements of nutrients - they also can play a role in reducing risk of disease and promoting good health.

While all foods are functional in that they provide nutrients, "functional foods" tend to be those with health-promoting ingredients or natural components that have been found to have potential benefit in the body.

They can include whole foods as well as fortified, enriched or enhanced foods and dietary supplements that have a beneficial effect on health.

The concept of functional foods is not entirely new, although it has evolved considerably over the years. In the early 1900s, food manufacturers in the United States began adding iodine to salt in an effort to prevent goiter, representing one of the first attempts at creating a functional component through fortification.

Today, researchers have identified hundreds of compounds with functional qualities, and they continue to make new discoveries surrounding the complex benefits of phytochemicals in foods.

Q. How does a food become "functional"?

Since many of these foods are just natural, whole foods with new information about their potential health qualities, they do not become "functional" except for the way we perceive them. On the other hand, functional foods can result from agricultural breeding or added nutrients/ingredients.

Many, if not most, fruits, vegetables, grains, fish, and dairy and meat products contain several natural components that deliver benefits beyond basic nutrition, such as lycopene in tomatoes, omega-3 fatty acids in salmon or saponins in soy. Even tea and chocolate have been noted in some studies as possessing functional attributes.

Agricultural scientists are able to boost the nutritional content of certain crops through the same breeding techniques that are used to bring out other beneficial traits in plants and animals - everything from beta-carotene-rich rice to vitamin-enhanced broccoli and soybeans.

And research is under way to improve the nutritional quality of dozens of other crops.

Other foods may be specially formulated with nutrients or other ingredients. This is true of products such as orange juice fortified with calcium, cereals with added vitamins or minerals, or flour with added folic acid.

In fact, more and more foods are being fortified with nutrients and other physiologically active components (such as plant stanols and sterols) as researchers uncover more evidence about their role in health and even disease risk reduction.

Q. What are some of the health benefits associated with functional foods?

The scientific community has only just begun to understand the complex interactions between nutritional components and the human body.

However, there is already a large body of scientific evidence showing that eating foods with functional benefits on a regular basis as part of a varied diet can help reduce the risk of, or manage a number of health concerns, including cancer, heart and cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal health, menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis and eye health etc.

Below is a sampling of a few functional foods, their components and their potential benefits for human health.

Examples of Functional Components



Potential Benefit



carrots, various fruits

neutralizes free radicals which may damage cells; bolsters cellular antioxidant defenses

Lutein, Zeaxanthin

kale, collards, spinach, corn, eggs, citrus

may contribute to maintenance of healthy vision


tomatoes and processed tomato products

may contribute to maintenance of prostate health

Dietary (functional and total) Fiber

Insoluble fiber

wheat bran

may contribute to maintenance of a healthy digestive tract

Beta glucan

oat bran, rolled oats, oat flour

may reduce risk of coronary heart disease (CHD)

Soluble fiber

psyllium seed husk

may reduce risk of CHD

Whole grains

cereal grains

may reduce risk of CHD and cancer; may contribute to maintenance of healthy blood glucose levels

Fatty Acids

MUFAs - Monounsaturated fatty acids )

tree nuts

may reduce risk of CHD

PUFAs - Polyunsaturated fatty acids  - Omega 3 fatty acids - ALA

walnuts, flax

may contribute to maintenance of mental and visual function

PUFAs - Omega 3 fatty acids - DHA/EPA

salmon, tuna, marine and other fish oils

may reduce risk of CHD; may contribute to maintenance of mental and visual function

PUFAs - Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)

beef and lamb; some cheese

may contribute to maintenance of desirable body composition and healthy immune function



berries, cherries, red grapes

bolster cellular antioxidant defenses; may contribute to maintenance of brain function

Flavanols - Catechins, Epicatechins, Procyanidins

tea, cocoa, chocolate, apples, grapes

may contribute to maintenance of heart health


citrus foods

neutralize free radicals which may damage cells; bolster cellular antioxidant defenses


onions, apples, tea, broccoli

neutralize free radicals which may damage cells; bolster cellular antioxidant defenses


cranberries, cocoa, apples, strawberries, grapes, wine, peanuts, cinnamon

may contribute to maintenance of urinary tract health and heart health



cauliflower, broccoli, broccoli sprouts, cabbage, kale, horseradish

may enhance detoxification of undesirable compounds and bolster cellular antioxidant defenses


Caffeic acid, Ferulic acid

apples, pears, citrus fruits, some vegetables

may bolster cellular antioxidant defenses; may contribute to maintenance of healthy vision and heart health

Plant Stanols/Sterols

Free Stanols/Sterols

corn, soy, wheat, wood oils, fortified foods and beverages

may reduce risk of CHD

Stanol/Sterol esters

fortified table spreads, stanol ester dietary supplements

may reduce risk of CHD


Sugar alcohols - xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, lactitol

some chewing gums and other food applications

may reduce risk of dental caries


Inulin, Fructo - oligosaccharides (FOS), Polydextrose

whole grains, onions, some fruits, garlic, honey, leeks, fortified foods and beverages

may improve gastrointestinal health; may improve calcium absorption 

Lactobacilli, Bifidobacteria

yogurt, other dairy and non-dairy applications

may improve gastrointestinal health and systemic immunity


Isoflavones - Daidzein, Genistein

soybeans and soy-based foods

may contribute to maintenance of bone health, healthy brain and immune function; for women, maintenance of menopausal health


flax, rye, some vegetables

may contribute to maintenance of heart health and healthy immune function

Soy Protein

Soy Protein

soybeans and soy-based foods

may reduce risk of CHD


Diallyl sulfide, Allyl methyl trisulfide

garlic, onions, leeks, scallions

may enhance detoxification of undesirable compounds; may contribute to maintenance of heart health and healthy immune function


cruciferous vegetables

contribute to maintenance of healthy immune function

Examples are not an all-inclusive list.

Q. How can I get more functional foods in my diet?

The most effective way to reap the health benefits from foods is to eat a balanced and varied diet, including fruits and vegetables as well as foods with added beneficial components.

Watch labels and read articles for information about foods and health. Before you decide to make any major dietary changes, however, take the time to evaluate your personal health, or speak to your health care provider on ways to help reduce your risk of certain diseases.

It is also important to remember that there is no single "magic bullet" food that can cure or prevent most health concerns, even when eaten in abundance. The best advice is to choose foods wisely from each level of the food guide pyramid in order to incorporate many potentially beneficial components into the diet.

Q. Where can I learn about scientific research related to the functional benefits of foods?

There are several universities and research institutions conducting scientific studies on various food components.

Q. Are functional foods regulated?

Yes. "Functional foods" has no official meaning and do not constitute a distinctly separate category of foods. Most often they are simply natural whole foods we have been eating for thousands of years. Therefore, they are regulated in the same way with all foods - safety of ingredients must be assured in advance, and all claims must be substantiated, truthful, and non-misleading.

A significant amount of credible scientific data is needed to confirm any "health claims"  - messages pertaining to a relationship between dietary components and a disease or health condition, for example soy protein and heart disease.

Foods also can bear another type of claim to convey their potential benefits, and those are called "structure/function claims."

These statements describe or imply a relationship between the product itself, or its components, and normal bodily functions (for example, "may help support digestion"). All such claims must be adequately substantiated.

Consumers need to remember that functional foods represent an important breakthrough in understanding the connection between diet, health, and even disease risk reduction.

With regard to all claims pertaining to diseases and health conditions, consumers may be reassured to know that they must be pre-approved and substantiated by a large body of credible scientific evidence.

And, although structure/function claims do not require approval, they too must be adequately substantiated by the producers of the food.

Q. What health claims have been approved so far by FDA?

Since 1993, US FDA has approved 14 health claims, eight of which are related to the functional benefits of food:

  • Potassium and reduced risk of high blood pressure and stoke

  • Plant sterol and plant stanol esters and coronary heart disease

  • Soy protein and coronary heart disease

  • Calcium and reduced risk of osteoporosis

  • Fiber-containing grain products, fruits and vegetables and cancer

  • Fruits, vegetables and grain products that contain fiber, particularly soluble fiber, and risk of coronary heart disease

  • Fruits and vegetables and cancer

  • Folate and neural tube birth defects

  • Dietary soluble fiber, such as that found in whole oats and psyllium seed husk, and coronary heart disease

  • Dietary sugar alcohol and dental caries (cavities)

The remaining three are based on diets low in "negative" nutrients in food, such as sodium:

  • Dietary fat and cancer

  • Dietary saturated fat and cholesterol and risk of coronary heart disease

  • Sodium and high blood pressure

Q. What is the relationship between biotechnology and functional foods?

While many of the nutritional compounds in functional foods are either naturally present or added during processing, some may be the result of agricultural breeding techniques, including conventional crossbreeding and biotechnology.

Crossbreeding a plant for a specific genetic trait, such as higher vitamin A content, can take as long as a decade or more.

Modern biotechnology, however, makes it possible to select a specific genetic trait from any plant and move it into the genetic code of another plant in a much shorter time span, and with more precision than crossbreeding allows.

Researchers are working with farmers around the world to develop dozens of functional foods through the use of this promising technology.

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The above opinionated views and information serves to educated and informed consumer .  The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. .It should not replaced professional advise and consultation.  A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions 

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