Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

What Are Functional Foods? All You Need to Know

Health + Wellness
Pexels

By Katherine Marengo, LDN, RD

In recent years, functional foods have gained popularity within health and wellness circles.


Also known as nutraceuticals, functional foods are highly nutritious and associated with a number of powerful health benefits. For example, they may protect against disease, prevent nutrient deficiencies, and promote proper growth and development.

This article looks at the definition, benefits, and potential uses of functional foods.

What are Functional Foods?

Functional foods are ingredients that offer health benefits that extend beyond their nutritional value. Some types contain supplements or other additional ingredients designed to improve health.

The concept originated in Japan in the 1980s when government agencies started approving foods with proven benefits in an effort to better the health of the general population.

Some examples include foods fortified with vitamins, minerals, probiotics, or fiber. Nutrient-rich ingredients like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains are often considered functional foods as well.

Oats, for instance, contain a type of fiber called beta glucan, which has been shown to reduce inflammation, enhance immune function, and improve heart health.

Similarly, fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants, which are beneficial compounds that help protect against disease.

Summary

Functional foods are foods that offer health benefits beyond their nutritional value. In addition to nutrient-rich ingredients like fruits and veggies, the category also includes foods fortified with vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and fiber.

Examples of Functional Foods

Functional foods are generally separated into two categories: conventional and modified.

Conventional foods are natural, whole-food ingredients that are rich in important nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and heart-healthy fats.

Meanwhile, modified foods have been fortified with additional ingredients, such as vitamins, minerals, probiotics, or fiber, to increase a food's health benefits.

Here are some examples of conventional functional foods:

  • Fruits: berries, kiwi, pears, peaches, apples, oranges, bananas
  • Vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, zucchini
  • Nuts: almonds, cashews, pistachios, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts
  • Seeds: chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, navy beans, lentils
  • Whole grains: oats, barley, buckwheat, brown rice, couscous
  • Seafood: salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, cod
  • Fermented foods: tempeh, kombucha, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut
  • Herbs and spices: turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cayenne pepper
  • Beverages: coffee, green tea, black tea

Here are some examples of modified functional foods:

  • fortified juices
  • fortified dairy products, such as milk and yogurt
  • fortified milk alternatives, such as almond, rice, coconut, and cashew milk
  • fortified grains, such as bread and pasta
  • fortified cereal and granola
  • fortified eggs

Summary

Nutrient-rich foods like fruits, veggies, and legumes are often considered functional foods, along with fortified foods like juice, eggs, and cereal.

Potential Benefits

Functional foods are associated with several potential health benefits.

May Prevent Nutrient Deficiencies

Functional foods are typically high in important nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and fiber.

Filling your diet with a variety of functional foods ⁠— including both conventional and fortified foods⁠ — can help ensure you get the nutrients you need and protect against nutrient deficiencies.

In fact, since the introduction of fortified foods, the prevalence of nutrient deficiencies has significantly decreased around the globe.

For instance, after iron-fortified wheat flour was introduced in Jordan, rates of iron deficiency anemia among children were nearly cut in half.

Fortification has also been used to prevent other conditions caused by nutrient deficiencies, including rickets, goiter, and birth defects.

May Protect Against Disease

Functional foods provide important nutrients that can help protect against disease.

Many are especially rich in antioxidants. These molecules help neutralize harmful compounds known as free radicals, helping prevent cell damage and certain chronic conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Some functional foods are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy type of fat shown to reduce inflammation, boost brain function, and promote heart health.

Other types are rich in fiber, which can promote better blood sugar control and protect against conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and stroke. Fiber may also help prevent digestive disorders, including diverticulitis, stomach ulcers, hemorrhoids, and acid reflux.

May Promote Proper Growth and Development

Certain nutrients are essential to proper growth and development in infants and children.

Enjoying a wide range of nutrient-rich functional foods as part of a healthy diet can help ensure that nutritional needs are met. In addition, it can be beneficial to include foods that are fortified with specific nutrients that are important for growth and development.

For example, cereals, grains, and flours are often fortified with B vitamins like folic acid, which is essential for fetal health.

Low levels of folic acid can increase the risk of neural tube defects, which can affect the brain, spinal cord, or spine. It's estimated that increasing the consumption of folic acid could decrease the prevalence of neural tube defects by 50–70%.

Other nutrients commonly found in functional foods also play key roles in growth and development, including omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin B12.

Summary

Functional foods may help prevent nutrient deficiencies, protect against disease, and promote proper growth and development.

Uses

A well-rounded, healthy diet should be rich in a variety of functional foods, including nutrient-rich whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

These foods not only supply your body with the vitamins and minerals it needs but also support overall health.

Modified, fortified functional foods can also fit into a balanced diet. In fact, they can help fill any gaps in your diet to prevent nutrient deficiencies, as well as enhance health by boosting your intake of important nutrients like vitamins, minerals, fiber, heart-healthy fats, or probiotics.

Summary

Functional foods can be used to boost your intake of important nutrients, fill any gaps in your diet, and support overall health.

The Bottom Line

Functional foods are a category of food associated with several powerful health benefits.

They can not only prevent nutrient deficiencies but also protect against disease and promote proper growth and development.

In addition to enjoying a variety of healthy whole foods, you can include more fortified foods in your diet to fill any nutritional gaps and support better health.

Reposted with permission from Healthline. For detailed source information, please view the original article on Healthline.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

People relax in Victoria Gardens with the Houses of Parliament in the background in central London, as a heatwave hit the continent with temperatures touching 40 degrees Celsius on June 25, 2020. NIKLAS HALLE'N / AFP via Getty Images

The chance that UK summer days could hit the 40 degree Celsius mark on the thermometer is on the rise, a new study from the country's Met Office Hadley Centre has found.

Read More Show Less
A crowd of people congregate along Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Florida on June 26, 2020, amid a surge in coronavirus cases. CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP / Getty Images

By Melissa Hawkins

After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.

Read More Show Less
A Chesapeake Energy drilling rig is located on farmland near Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, on March 20, 2012. Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images

By Eoin Higgins

Climate advocates pointed to news Sunday that fracking giant Chesapeake Energy was filing for bankruptcy as further evidence that the fossil fuel industry's collapse is being hastened by the coronavirus pandemic and called for the government to stop propping up businesses in the field.

Read More Show Less
Youth participate in the Global Climate Strike in Providence, Rhode Island on September 20, 2019. Gabriel Civita Ramirez / CC by 2.0

By Neil King and Gabriel Borrud

Human beings all over the world agreed to strict limitations to their rights when governments made the decision to enter lockdown during the COVID-19 crisis. Many have done it willingly on behalf of the collective. So why can't this same attitude be seen when tackling climate change?

Read More Show Less
A crowd awaits the evening lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota on June 23, 2012. Mindy / Flickr

Fire experts have already criticized President Trump's planned fireworks event for this Friday at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial as a dangerous idea. Now, it turns out the event may be socially irresponsible too as distancing guidelines and mask wearing will not be enforced at the event, according to CNN.

Read More Show Less
Mountains of produce, including eggs, milk and onions, are going to waste as the COVID-19 pandemic shutters restaurants, restricts transport, limits what workers are able to do and disrupts supply chains. United States government work

By Emma Charlton

Gluts of food left to rot as a consequence of coronavirus aren't just wasteful – they're also likely to damage the environment.

Read More Show Less

Trending

The gates of the unusually low drought-affected Carraizo Dam are seen closed in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico on June 29, 2020. RICARDO ARDUENGO / AFP via Getty Images)

Puerto Rico's governor declared a state of emergency on Monday after a severe drought on the island left 140,000 people without access to running water, despite the necessary role that hand washing and hygiene plays in stopping the novel coronavirus, as The Independent reported.

Read More Show Less