Functional Foods

Reviewed by Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN
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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, it’s helpful to remember that most 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. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or FDA, regulates foods labeled as functional, it does not provide a legal definition of the term.

Functional foods cover a variety of foods, including whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods. Generally, they have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed on a regular basis at certain levels.

Functional foods may include:

  • Conventional foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts.
  • Modified foods such as yogurt, cereals and orange juice.

The FDA provides regulation and guidance for various health and nutrient claims that may appear on labels, such as those promoting the role of dietary fiber for heart health or advertisements that a product is lite or reduced-fat. However, there's no legal definition for functional foods, so American consumers are left to evaluate some claims on their own. Focusing on the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list on the back of a food package can help you determine if a food is a healthful choice.

Another tricky area is food fortification — when products include added vitamins and other nutrients. Fortified foods have a place in a healthy eating plan, and they may help to fill gaps in nutrient intake, but they shouldn't replace foods that naturally contain those nutrients, when possible. For example, there are only a few foods that naturally contain vitamin D, so products that are fortified with it, such as milk, act as a source of vitamin D for many people. Other foods and beverages may be fortified with nutrients that aren’t as difficult to obtain. Some fortified products may also contain high amounts of added sugars or sodium, so be sure to review the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients.

Consider eating more of these nutrient-dense, functional foods.

  1. Cold-Water Fish — Sardines and Salmon
    These protein-packed fish are lower in mercury and have higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which may help lower risk of heart disease and improve infant health when consumed by women during pregnancy or while breast-feeding. About eight ounces of seafood a week is a good goal for adults, which amounts to two meals per week.
  2. Nuts
    They make a great snack, help you feel full and may help promote heart health. Bonus: most unsalted nuts, including cashews and almonds, are good sources of magnesium, which plays a role in managing blood pressure.
  3. Whole Grains — Barley
    Often overshadowed by the fame of oatmeal, barley delivers similar benefits. It's high in dietary fiber, an underconsumed nutrient of public health concern in the U.S., and may help lower cholesterol and assist with blood sugar control.
  4. Beans
    Beans provide dietary fiber, as well as protein, potassium and folate. While canned beans are fine, look for those with no salt added. If you do choose beans with salt added, rinse and drain them before use, which reduces sodium significantly.
  5. Berries
    Whether you opt for strawberries, cranberries, blueberries, raspberries or blackberries, berries in general are wonderful functional foods. Not only are they low in calories, their anthocyanin pigments, which give them color, may offer health promoting benefits. If you can't get fresh berries, frozen unsweetened berries make a fine alternative.

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