Chances are that you’ve heard the phrase “functional foods,” but maybe you aren’t sure just what it refers to. Rest assured that most functional foods are not foods created in a laboratory somewhere, but instead are many of the foods you probably eat every day.
A formal definition of a functional food is a food or component of food that may supply a health benefit in addition to the basic nutrition it provides. For example, milk, which naturally contains calcium and is fortified with vitamin D, promotes bone health and is a functional food, as are all the antioxidant- and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables you eat. Salmon and other cold-water, fatty fish qualify as functional foods thanks to the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids they contain.
Some newcomers to the functional food market include enhanced products such as calcium-fortified orange juice, margarines that contain added plant stanol and sterol esters (natural ingredients that can help lower blood cholesterol levels), and some popular sports drinks and energy bars that feature added vitamins, minerals, and other substances.
Help or hype?
All of the foods mentioned above contain nutrients or ingredients that promote health in some way. In addition to familiar-sounding vitamins, minerals, and fiber, functional foods often contain some strange-sounding ingredients, such as resveratrol, polyphenols, lycopene, and proanthocyanidins. While such ingredients may sound like harmful chemicals, they are actually substances that can help maintain good health and even fight many common diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and some types of cancer. The table “Functional Foods at Work” has a few examples of how common, everyday foods may protect us from disease and keep our bodies functioning properly.
While many functional foods can definitely be part of a healthy eating plan, some food manufacturers have developed certain types of functional foods that are not necessarily good for us. For example, many of the fortified energy bars on the market are about as nutritious as a candy bar. Although they may contain a handful of added vitamins and minerals, these bars often have just as much fat and sugar as your favorite chocolate bar. Some beverages, such as bottled iced teas that contain certain herbs, may sound like a better choice than regular iced tea because they promise to increase your energy or your “brain power.” In many cases, however, they contain the same amount of sugar and calories as regular iced tea. In addition, because there is no regulation over how much of an herb a manufacturer can put into a particular food, there’s no guarantee that you would reap a health benefit from drinking it.