Nutrition Column – How Functional is Your Food?

"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Although spoken by Hippocrates almost 2,500 years ago, the philosophy of "food as medicine" is gaining renewed interest among nutrition experts and consumers.

In a sense, all foods are functional in that they provide taste, aroma and nutrients. Yet, some foods may provide additional health benefits.

Defining functional foods

Currently, there is no universally accepted definition for functional foods. The International Food Information Council defines functional foods as "foods that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition." Other health organizations use similar definitions.

There are two general categories of functional foods. First, there are unmodified whole foods that naturally contain components shown to be beneficial for health. Second, there are modified foods that are fortified with specific nutrients or enhanced with phytochemicals or herbs.

Examples of functional foods

When seeking out functional foods, you may have to look no further than your kitchen. Some examples include:

  • Oatmeal and whole oat products – may lower cholesterol and reduce the risk for heart disease.
  • Whole grain products – may reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • Whole soy foods and foods made with soy protein – may lower cholesterol and reduce the risk for heart disease.
  • Fatty fish containing omega-3 fatty acids – believed to lower the risk for heart disease and improve mental and visual functions.
  • Watermelon and tomato products – contain lycopene, which may reduce the risk for some cancers, especially prostate cancer.
  • Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables – help neutralize free radicals and may reduce the risk of cancer.
  • Citrus fruits – contain flavanones, which help neutralize free radicals and may reduce the risk of cancer.
  • Dairy products – may help lower the risk for osteoporosis and certain cancers.
  • Breads and cereals fortified with folic acid – reduce the risk for neural tube defects.

Regulation and safety of functional foods

In the United States, foods do not have to meet certain standards or pass specific tests in order to be described as "functional." When evaluating potential functional foods, the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends asking these four questions:

  1. Does it work? Health claims that mention a specific disease on the food label, such as "may reduce the risk for heart disease," must be supported by scientific research and are pre-approved by the Food and Drug Administration. On the other hand, "structure-or-function" claims, like "calcium builds strong bones," do not require FDA approval and may or may not have scientific evidence to support them.
  2. How much does it contain? The optimal levels of components in functional foods are still being researched and have yet to be determined. It’s best to avoid excessive doses.
  3. Is it safe? Herbs and certain other ingredients in functional foods are not regulated like food additives and drugs. They are not required to undergo tests to see if they may cause cancer, birth defects, liver toxicity or other problems.
  4. Is it healthy? Just because a product claims to be a functional food does not automatically mean it is good for your overall health. Chips, candy bars and cookies that have added "super nutrients" may still be high in sugar, fat and calories.

Remember, functional foods are only one aspect of a balanced diet. While some functional foods may be an effective method to promote good health, they should not be consumed in excess or replace medically prescribed therapy for any health condition.