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What Are Functional Foods? All You Need to Know

Health + Wellness
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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.

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