The majority of fortified functional foods have not been tested for safety, let alone functionality. And while government regulations force manufacturers to divulge the amount of nutrients (including vitamins and minerals) they put into their products, there are no such regulations for herbs and other supplements, such as amino acids. Too much of a particular herb or supplement can be harmful. Functional foods containing these ingredients may even potentially interact with medicines, leading to serious side effects.
The best way to benefit from “nature’s own” functional foods is to eat foods in their natural state. In other words, following a meal plan consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthful fats is one of the best ways to stay healthy and arm yourself against illness and disease. It’s important to note that functional foods are not magic bullets — they can’t make up for a diet that’s high in saturated fat, for example, or a lifestyle that includes smoking, excessive alcohol intake, or chronic inactivity.
Where to find functional foods
You don’t need to become an organic farmer or shop at a natural foods store to take advantage of the benefits offered by the multitude of healthful foods. Your local grocery store likely carries all that you need. Let’s take a tour of the grocery store to see what we can find.
First, spend some time in the produce section of the store. All fresh fruits and vegetables offer some kind of nutritional benefit, so the key here is to choose a variety. To make it easier to choose, try to eat different-colored fruits and vegetables every day — red, yellow/orange, green, blue/purple, and even white — since each color contains specific, health-promoting phytochemicals. Fresh produce is rich in antioxidants, fiber, and other substances that are necessary for good health.
What about canned or frozen produce? If fresh produce isn’t available or seems too expensive, canned or frozen will do. In fact, plain frozen fruits and vegetables are usually highly nutritious, because the freezing process helps them retain nutrients. Select frozen fruit that is not packed in syrup, and avoid frozen vegetables packaged in butter, cream, or cheese sauces. When preparing canned vegetables, rinse them to remove some of the sodium, or purchase canned vegetables that contain no added salt. If you buy fruit in a can, get the kind packed in water or its own juice rather than in syrup, and drain off some of the juice to reduce the amount of carbohydrate.
Next, stroll down the bread aisle and look for breads, rolls, and crackers that list whole wheat or another whole grain as the first ingredient on the label. Whole grains naturally provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals and have been linked to reduced risk of heart disease and some cancers. Also try whole wheat pasta, brown rice, bulgur, millet, or barley as alternatives to potatoes, white rice, or regular pasta. And don’t overlook the healthful choices in the cereal aisle — experiment with steel-cut or old-fashioned oats (for a healthy dose of cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber) or a whole-grain cereal for breakfast.