We’ve heard the terms organic, clean label and natural. But what about “functional”? Functional foods have become an increasingly popular term, but what does is it mean? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as, “whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence." In short, functional foods have health benefits on top of basic nutrition. A key word in the definition is “whole.” In order to be considered functional, the benefits of the particular food are coming from the whole food, not the particular vitamin, mineral or antioxidant within it. For example, yogurt is the functional food, not the calcium. You would not get the same benefits from a calcium supplement that you would with consuming the yogurt.
There is a growing population of people who are taking a ride on the functional freeway. There is an increasing number of people taking their health into their own hands - and they’re using food to do it. Some have referred to this as a “self-care” phenomenon. More and more people are taking a holistic approach to improve health. This change likely stems from fear, or at least a strong concern, of nutrition labels with unrecognizable ingredients. Chemicals, hormones, and a wide range of antibiotics used on the crop or given to animals are often a cause for concern.
Functional foods can be as simple as oatmeal that is packed with fiber, which can help lower cholesterol and regulate blood sugar, or modified orange juice packed with vitamin C, and fortified with calcium for bone health. Other examples of functional foods include fish, nuts, whole grains, berries and beans. Functional foods are often used on a greater scale and believed to combat diseases. When you think of the phrase, “food is medicine”, well, that could very well be the slogan for functional foods. But since the FDA does not, itself define functional foods, this leads the consumer to do the research on their own. Manufacturers can get away with slapping misleading and confusing claims on their products, so when deciding if the product is what you are looking for, pay more attention to the nutrition label on the back, rather than the claims on the front.
So, what does this all mean? It means there is a lot of knowledge out there waiting to be consumed - by you! If you are part of the growing population who is using their pantry to take control of their health, research as much as you can, and make the best decision for yourself and your family. If you are interested in more on functional foods, seek out a dietitian that specializes in functional nutrition.