Functional foods: what are they?


A functional food is one containing health-giving additives, in that it has been given an additional function (often one related to health-promotion or disease prevention) by adding new ingredients or more of existing ingredients. The term was first introduced in Japan in the mid-1980s, where a government approval process for functional foods is known as Foods for Specified Health Use (FOSHU). When considered in this light it’s no surprise the functional food industry, consisting of food, beverage and supplement sectors, is an area that has experienced fast growth in recent years.

Natural versus industrial

It’s easy to see how industrial functional foods might be created and marketed to achieve premium prices, while the promises that accompany them may lead to consumers depending upon them for more than can be delivered. Functional foods do not make up for bad eating habits.  All the same, they can have a role as part of an overall healthy lifestyle that includes a real food balanced diet, regular exercise and proper sleep. For example, overwhelming evidence from clinical trial data indicates that a diet including functional foods from plant-based sources, such as vegetables, fruits and wholegrain can reduce the risk of chronic disease, cancer in particular. The cancer risk in people who consumed these foods was only one-half than those who consumed few of these foods.

The benefits of keeping it real

Natural real foods are increasingly recognised as capable of providing health benefits greater than their inherent nutrition, or even further advantages when combined with other foods. For example, health professionals are slowly recognising the role of phytonutrients, found in plant-based foods, in health enhancement.

Some of my favourite natural functional real foods:
  • Oats, containing soluble fibre that can help lower cholesterol levels. There is now significant agreement that consuming oats can reduce total and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk of coronary heart disease.
  • Flaxseed. In animal studies flaxseeds have been shown to decrease tumours of the colon and mammary glands, as well as the lungs. Consumption of flaxseeds has also shown to reduce total and LDL cholesterol.
  • Tomatoes. In a cohort study, men who consumed tomato products 10 or more times a week had less than one-half the risk of developing advance prostate cancer. Other cancers associated with the possible reduced risk of consuming lycopene (a carotenoid found in tomatoes) include breast, digestive tract, cervix, bladder and skin.
  • Broccoli (cruciferous vegetables) – scientific evidence has associated frequent consumption of cruciferous vegetables with decreased cancer risk, such as lung and colon.

Real foods whose health benefits are supported by enough scientific evidence have the potential to be an important part of a healthy lifestyle. These are natural ‘Food with benefits’. Industrial Functional Foods can also be used as specialised delivery systems, for example, foods containing probiotics, prebiotics, or plant stanols and sterols.

Functional foods – always read the label

Functional foods and drinks can be fortified with a nutrient that would not usually be present to any great extent (e.g. folic acid fortified bread or breakfast cereals) but it is important when buying these foods to check the other ingredients, especially levels of salt, sugar and fat. Functional foods and drinks may be advertised to provide specified benefits in health terms, but should not be automatically considered ‘healthy’ or seen as an alternative to a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. As with all processed food, choose wisely. The manufacturers may highlight the benefits without pointing out possible drawbacks, so always make sure additives don’t turn out to be gimmicks on behalf of products better left on the shelf.

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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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