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Functional Foods

Contributors: Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN

Published: January 06, 2022

Reviewed: December 21, 2021

Functional Foods - Nuts and Berries

Magazine articles and news reports tout the benefits of "functional foods," which they claim can do everything, from reducing cholesterol to preventing cancer. At the grocery store, you'll find plenty of foods and beverages with similar health benefits advertised on their packaging — but what is a functional food exactly?

Most foods are functional. Food may provide 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" that included additional health benefits beyond those covered by basic nutrition.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, regulates functional foods and label claims that appear on foods and beverages. Examples of claims include those promoting the role of dietary fiber for heart health or advertisements that a product is “lite” or reduced in sodium or fat. Although the FDA defines terms, such as “reduced sodium” and “low-fat,” there is currently no legal definition for functional food. This leaves American consumers to evaluate the claim on their own. Focusing on the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list can help you determine if a food is a healthful choice.

Functional foods cover a variety of foods. Minimally processed, whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods, can all be functional foods. Generally, these foods have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed on a regular basis and at certain levels.

Another area that is often questioned is food fortification — when products include added vitamins and other nutrients. Fortified foods can have a place in a healthy eating plan. Some may help to provide nutrients that might be low or missing. For example, there are only a few foods that naturally contain vitamin D, so products that are fortified with it, such as milk, are a main source of vitamin D for many people. Other foods and beverages may be fortified with nutrients that are easier to obtain. Some fortified products may also contain high amounts of added sugars or sodium, so be sure to review the Nutrition Facts label.

When possible, consider focusing on minimally processed, functional foods to provide a variety of nutrients to help meet your needs. Some examples might include:

  1. Fish 
    Fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, trout and herring, are among some of the best choices. They 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 breastfeeding. About eight ounces of seafood a week is a good goal for adults, which amounts to two meals per week.
  2. Unsalted 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 
    Oatmeal receives plenty of recognition for its dietary fiber, an under consumed nutrient of public health concern in the United States. It may help lower cholesterol and assist with blood sugar control. Other whole grains, such as whole barley, farro and buckwheat, also offer a variety of health benefits.
  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 are wonderful functional foods. Not only are they low in calories, their anthocyanin pigments, which give them color, may offer health benefits. If you can't get fresh berries, frozen unsweetened berries are a healthful choice, too.

A healthful eating style, which includes a variety of foods from each food group, prepared in a healthful way, can help you meet your nutrient needs and reduce your risk for various chronic diseases. Focus on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein foods and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. For more information on functional foods or developing an eating plan that is right for you, find a registered dietitian nutritionist in your area.

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