The lowdown on functional foods

I just got back from a visit to my local supermarket to buy ingredients for tonight’s dinner. I don’t buy a lot of processed foods and I find it interesting checking out what’s on the shelves claiming to have one health benefit or another.

I wandered up and down the aisles (much to my husband’s annoyance) checking out the claims of cholesterol lowering, low fat, high protein etc on food labels.

Foods that claim to have health benefits or reduce the risk of disease are classified as functional foods.

So what are some examples of functional foods? Are functional foods a different species to natural foods?

Well – yes and no.

All foods that we eat contain various proportions of the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fats) and differing amounts of vitamins, minerals and other bio-active compounds.

All the above foods contain macronutrients, vitamins, minerals and bio-active compounds

Functional foods can be natural (some fruits, vegetables or oats, oily fish etc) or processed or enhanced natural foods (high-protein yoghurts, cholesterol lowering margarines, omega-3 eggs etc). It’s usually the bio-active compounds in food that contribute to the classification of whether a food is functional or not.

So what are these bio-active compounds?

Bio-active compounds (phytochemical from plants and zoochemicals from animals) may reduce the risk of various diseases or improve health in some way. As the consumer becomes more health conscious, shoppers are always on the look-out for foods that offer potential health benefits. This goes back to the concept of “Food as Medicine” as I discussed in my previous post.

I do not consider processed functional foods as bad for our health, however as a consumer I believe in mindful eating. We should always be aware of what’s in the foods we eat and choose the least processed foods when/where possible.

Here are some examples of functional foods (this is only small selection) – you have probably seen similar on the labels of foods in the supermarket or on television promoting the benefits of a natural or particular processed food:

  • dietary fibre – while most foods contain some degree of fibre, fibre content can be increased for example by the addition of Hi-maize or Psyllium to bread and pasta. Benefits of fibre – helps keep the digestive system working reducing risk of constipation or haemorrhoids, may help reduce blood sugar and cholesterol levels;
  • phytochemical (plant chemicals) – vegetables and fruit are a great source of these compounds including flavonoids, lycopene, carotenoids and many more. Green/black tea is also a great source. These are naturally occurring compounds however some species have bred to contain higher levels, for example the Queen Garnet plum (have a look at the link in the reference section). Processed foods may incorporate fruit/vegetables to increase the level of phytochemicals (e.g. dried cranberries, blueberries). Benefits of phytochemicals – diets high in fruit/vegetables may lower the risk of cancer, anti-inflammatory and are good for heart health;
  • omega-3 fatty acids – natural sources include oily fish like salmon, sardines, mackeral, walnuts, flaxseed and chia seed. An example of enriched foods are eggs from chickens who are fed flaxseed, which is digested by the chicken and some of the omega-3 is transferred to the egg-yolk. Benefits of omega-3 fatty acids – beneficial for body and brain, important for heart health, may regulate cholesterol and help with auto-immune diseases (reduce risk or help manage symptoms);
  • fermented foods – usually naturally occurring as part of the fermentation process for example kefir, sauerkraut, miso, kombucha and yoghurts. Some yoghurts promote the benefits of multiple strains of culture which claim to more beneficial than others for irritable bowel syndrome than others. Benefits of fermented foods – provide probiotic bacteria to improve digestive health, help balance gut bacteria, reduce symptoms of irritable bowel;
  • increased or reduced biological component, for example fat, lactose, carbohydrate or energy – may have more or reduced levels of component. Some foods with increased levels include folate (bread, flours), phytosterol/phytostanol (margarines to reduce cholesterol), resistant starch (more soluble fibre for gut health), creatine enriched sports foods ( improve physical performance). Reduced levels – low regular confectionary (reduce tooth decay), gluten free (see below), lactose free (allergies to full dairy products), reduced fat by using fat replacements (like Olestra) and low Glycemic index foods (low GI) for diabetics. Benefits of increased or reduced biological component foods – these foods benefit specific health target groups and as in the case of gluten free or low GI are necessary to maintain good health. Fortified flours with folate help reduce the risk of babies born with spinal bifida if consumed in early pregnancy.
  • gluten free – replacement of gluten containing grains (oats, rye, wheat, barley) with gluten-free (rice, corn, sorghum, millet etc). Benefits of gluten-free diet – people with coeliac disease need to avoid gluten to prevent damage to small intestine. Those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome or auto-immune diseases may also benefit from gluten free diets.

While some consider the term “functional food” to be a marketing tool, its worth exploring how our health might benefit from their inclusion within our diets. Next time you are in the supermarket (especially in the health food aisle) check out the labels on foods. Have a look at added ingredients and health benefit claims.

Salmon is a great source of omega-3s.
Photo by Oscar Mikols on

By the way – if you are interested – tonight’s dinner is shepherd’s pie. I use pumpkin instead of potato on the top and it’s pretty yummy. Happy to share my recipe if anyone is interested.

References and reading material

3 thoughts on “The lowdown on functional foods

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