With a growing interest in optimizing nutritional intake, functional foods have become a popular item among consumers. But what does the term functional foods really mean? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as those that may offer benefits to health when consumed regularly and within effective amounts, along with a diet high in variety. Many other definitions exist, describing functional foods as those that contain food components that provide health benefits beyond that of basic nutrition.
Functional foods include whole, fortified, enriched, and enhanced foods. This means that whole strawberries are considered a functional food, as well as orange juice fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
Whole food functional foods:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Fermented foods
- Coffee and tea
- Nuts, seeds, legumes
Fortified functional foods:
- Dairy products fortified with vitamins A & D
- Milk alternatives fortified with vitamin D & calcium
- Juice fortified with vitamin D
- Breakfast cereal fortified with iron & B vitamins
Are Functional Foods Safe?
Although some foods provide more benefits to health when compared to other foods, there is some confusion as to what qualifies as a functional food. All foods can technically be called functional foods because they provide energy and nutrients that contribute to sustaining life. Since all foods may fall under this category, functional foods can be considered safe to consume. What may make them potentially “unsafe” is that there is no regulated definition for functional foods. The word can be misleading when used on food labeling. As an unregulated term, it leaves the consumer to evaluate the claim by reading the nutrition facts label and ingredients list.
Would I Benefit From Functional Foods?
Functional foods can absolutely be part of a healthy diet, meaning you may benefit from adding them to your grocery list. As mentioned earlier, most foods could be considered functional foods, especially healthy foods such as oats, strawberries, and broccoli. The good thing is, you likely already consume some functional foods in your diet.
There may even be an added benefit to increasing particular functional foods in your diet. For instance if you struggle with high blood cholesterol, consuming more cold water fatty fish, which are high in omega 3 fatty acids, may help reduce elevated blood triglyceride levels. If you are at risk of developing prostate cancer, it may be beneficial to consume more tomatoes as they contain high levels of an anti-cancer antioxidant called lycopene. No matter what your health goal is, there is likely a functional food (or many) that can help you achieve that goal. But remember, for functional foods to have their desired health effects, it is important to consume an overall healthy, balanced diet.
How to Choose the Right Functional Foods for Me
While functional foods can provide health benefits, it's crucial to be an informed consumer when choosing which functional foods to include in your diet. It is important to note that the label “functional food” does not necessarily make the food a healthy choice to eat all the time. Many highly processed foods may be considered functional due to being fortified with beneficial ingredients. Fortified foods can play an important role in our diets, especially to get more of the nutrients we might be low in, such as vitamin D. Yet, focusing on selecting more whole food sources of functional foods is a great way to incorporate these into your diet without adding more highly processed items.
When considering which whole functional foods to include in your diet, consider health conditions you may be at risk for having. Look at your family health history and consider what disease states are recurrent.
To reduce the risk of developing cancer, try incorporating functional foods high in antioxidants:
- Brazil nuts (selenium)
- Almonds (vitamin E)
- Sweet potatoes (beta-carotene)
- Tomatoes (lycopene)
To reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, try incorporating the following functional foods to lower cholesterol and blood pressure:¹
- Grapes (resveratrol)
- Flaxseed (omega-3 fatty acids & Lignins)
- Green tea (catechins)
- Oats (beta-glucans)
How to Incorporate Functional Foods into the Diet
Before becoming overly concerned about incorporating functional foods in the diet, make sure you are eating a healthy, balanced diet. Next, consider the following: What are your health goals? Are you at risk for chronic diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, cancer, or cardiovascular disease? Whatever your health goals are, there is some type of functional food that may help you reach them. You don’t have to change your whole diet to incorporate more functional foods. These foods can be added to any dish, such as adding flaxseed to your yogurt in the morning or adding chopped brazil nuts on top of your oatmeal breakfast. You can also replace snack foods with more functional foods. For example, replacing chips with a handful of fresh grapes, or replacing a granola bar with a spoonful of almond butter. Remember, small changes can add up over the course of a lifetime. Starting to add the right functional foods into your diet now may make all the difference later on in life.
There are so many functional foods that can benefit our health, we couldn’t possibly name them all here. Are you interested in discovering more foods that can enhance your well-being? To learn more about antioxidant-rich functional foods, check out our other blog post, “What Are Antioxidants?” If you’re interested in more information about foods that mitigate risk of chronic disease, read more here: “What Are Superfoods And Are They Actually ‘Super’?”
Hasler CM, Kundrat S, Wool D. Functional foods and cardiovascular disease. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2000;2(6):467-475. doi:10.1007/s11883-000-0045-9
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