Magazine articles and news reports tout the benefits of eating "functional foods," which they claim can do everything from reduce cholesterol to prevent conditions such as heart disease or cancer. At the grocery store, you'll find plenty of breakfast cereals, yogurts and nut butters with similar health benefits proclaimed on their packaging.
Can these modified foods be considered functional foods? What is a functional food exactly?
To answer those questions, first, it's important to note that all foods are functional as they deliver physiological benefits including protein for muscle repair, carbohydrates for energy or vitamins and minerals for cell function. But in the 1980s, the Japanese government created a class of "functional foods" — conventional and modified foods that included additional health benefits beyond basic nutrition. Here in the U.S., while the Food and Drug Administration does regulate foods labeled as functional, it does not provide a legal definition of the term.
Meanwhile, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as: "whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence."
Functional foods include:
- Conventional foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts.
- Modified foods such as yogurt, cereals and orange juice.
- Medical foods such as special formulations of foods and beverages for certain health conditions.
- Foods for special dietary use such as infant formula and hypoallergenic foods.
Because there's no legal or governmental definition of what a functional food is, American consumers are left to evaluate a food's health claims on their own. "Health claims can be used as a marketing tool," says former Academy spokesperson Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD. "Pay more attention to the back of the box than to the front of it. If the package says it's a whole-grain product, then whole grains should be the first ingredient, because the ingredient list is organized by weight."
Another tricky area for consumers is food fortification — when labels claim that products include added vitamins and nutrients. "There are a lot of foods that now include omega-3 fatty acids, but you can make a better decision by choosing salmon." Moore says, "You have to eat a lot of fortified products to get the clinical response you'd get from eating salmon."
Moore suggests these five functional foods:
- Cold-Water Fish — Sardines and Salmon
These protein-packed fish have high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower overall risk of heart disease, reduce joint pain and improve brain development and function. "We should be eating about eight ounces of fish a week," she says. "But Americans only eat about three ounces."
They make a great snack, help you feel full and can help control blood sugar levels. Bonus: Nuts, including cashews and almonds, are high in magnesium, which can lower blood pressure. Almonds, pecans and walnuts can help lower cholesterol.
- Whole Grains — Barley
It gets overshadowed by the benefits of oatmeal, but barley delivers similar health benefits. It's high in fiber, which most Americans lack in their diets, helps lower cholesterol and assists with blood sugar control, making it a good choice for people with diabetes. So eat your oatmeal in the morning; then, add barley to your soup at lunch.
Beans are another terrific source of fiber, as well as protein, potassium and folate. While canned beans are fine, look for those low in sodium. And Moore recommends rinsing beans before use, which removes a significant amount of added sodium content.
Whether you pick strawberries, cranberries, blueberries, raspberries or blackberries, berries in general are amazing functional foods. Not only are they low in calories, their anthocyanin pigments, which give them color, offer health promoting benefits. If you can't get fresh berries, frozen unsweetened berries make a fine alternative.