Functional Foods: What Are They, and Why Should You Be Eating Them?

The concept of “functional foods” is growing in popularity and as society becomes increasingly focused on health, wellness and self-care. Though all foods are functional to an extent in that they satiate appetite, provide taste and offer some nutritional value, there are certain foods that are so high in vitamins and nutrients that they have powerful health benefits. Evidence suggest that these foods — known as functional foods — may safeguard against disease, promote healthy growth and development, and prevent nutrient deficits. So, which foods are considered functional and what kind of value do they really provide? Find out below.

Defining “Functional”

Though a buzzword in recent years, functional foods are not a new concept. The term originated in Japan in the 1980s when, in response to rising health care costs, the country’s government began approving certain foods for their health benefits. Once the concept caught on in the United States, where the FDA regulates what manufacturers can and cannot say regarding the health benefits of certain foods, health organizations began attempting to come up with a definition. Below are two definitions of functional foods, as provided by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Functional foods are those that provide benefits that go beyond its basic nutritional value because of what it contains. For instance, soy is considered functional because it is a protein that is proven to reduce cholesterol levels — a benefit that goes beyond its nutritional value.
  • Functional foods are also foods that have been fortified to add health benefits. A common example of a fortified “food” is orange juice, which is often calcium-fortified to improve bone health.

Though the latter types of foods are healthy, most people can agree that foods that are naturally rich in vitamins and minerals are better for the body.

Examples of Functional Foods

There are two types of functional foods: conventional and modified. Conventional foods are simply those that naturally contain vitamins, minerals, heart-healthy fats and antioxidants. Modified foods are those that are fortified with additional ingredients to boost their health benefits. Examples of conventional foods are as follows:

  • Fruits and vegetables, particularly cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, kale, apples, oranges, bananas and berries
  • Nuts, such as cashews, macadamia nuts, almonds and pistachios
  • Whole grains, such as oats, brown rice and couscous
  • Seeds, such as flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and chia seeds
  • Seafood, such as salmon, mackerel, cod and sardines
  • Legumes, such as black beans, navy beans, chickpeas and lentils
  • Herbs and spices, particularly cinnamon, turmeric, cayenne, ginger and pepper
  • Certain beverages, such as green tea, black tea and coffee
  • Fermented foods, such as kombucha, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir

Examples of modified foods include several dairy products, fortified grains, fortified juices, fortified eggs and fortified cereals.

The Benefits of Functional Foods

There is ample evidence proving that those foods deemed as “functional” do, in fact, have several health benefits beyond their nutritional value. Though some foods have more and more powerful benefits than others, many conventional and fortified functional foods help to correct nutrient deficiencies, promote healthy growth and development and prevent disease. A few examples of functional foods at work include those that contain omega-3 fatty acids, which help to reduce inflammation, promote heart health and boost brain function; iron-fortified foods, which reduced rates of childhood anemia in Jordan by nearly 50%; and foods that are rich in folic acid, which can help to reduce the prevalence of neural tube defects by as much as 70%.

Incorporating Functional Foods Into Your Diet

Incorporating functional foods doesn’t have to be — and shouldn’t be — difficult. So long as you maintain a well-balanced diet rich in whole foods, your body should get the vitamins and minerals it needs to function optimally. To fill nutrient gaps, add fortified foods to your diet where necessary.

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