Functional foods: Taking healthy eating to the next level?

Bianca Carducci
16 July 2013

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/kutaytanir

These days, it’s hard to miss all the functional foods featured on supermarket shelves. Functional foods provide nutrients above and beyond what is required for normal maintenance and growth, or nutrients that help prevent disease.

Did you know? Health Canada defines a functional food as a food item that “ is demonstrated to have physiological benefits and/or reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions.”

On the one hand, functional foods include processed foods that have been fortified with health-promoting additives. Whether it’s vitamin D- and calcium-enriched orange juice (to reduce the risk of osteoporosis) or probiotic yogurt (to assist in digestion), health claims can make these products appear more nutritious than ordinary food.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember the rich assortment of unprocessed foods that boast powerful health benefits. Many of these also fit the definition of functional foods. In particular, produce often contains naturally-occurring concentrated bioactive compounds. For example, many fruits and vegetables, such as lemons and broccoli, have a variety of anti-cancer and immune system-boosting properties.

The list of bioactive compounds found in functional foods and the specific health benefits they provide is almost endless. For example, green tea and citrus fruits both reduce the risk of cancer, although in different ways. The main bioactive substances in green tea are called catechins, while flavonones are abundant in citrus fruits. The need to understand exactly how these compounds act on our bodies is the main reason why research in the field of functional foods has grown dramatically in recent years.

As a result, new bioactive compounds with long-term health benefits are being discovered on a regular basis. In fact, Canada is a powerhouse in the development of innovative food products, with $30 billion spent on research and development in 2011 alone. Companies like Kellogg and Danone have recently invested tens of millions of dollars in Canadian factories designed to produce functional foods.

Did you know? When the bioactive compounds associated with functional foods are isolated or purified and sold as medicine, they are generally referred to as nutraceuticals.It is also important to note that unlike fruits and vegetables, the enriched or processed types of functional foods follow very strict labeling regulations. These require companies to clearly explain any added health benefits.

In Canada, there are four types of health claims. First, disease risk reduction claims describe how consuming certain bioactive compounds may reduce the risk of disease. Second, function claims cover any positive physiological effects that can be expected from consuming a particular food. Third, probiotic claims identify the strain and species of bacteria that will contribute to a healthier gut. Finally, therapeutic health claims identify bioactive substances that restore or enhance bodily functions.

All in all, functional foods are an excellent way to kick-start a healthy diet! Look for them at your local grocery store. They may even already be in your cuæpboard and part of your diet!

References

News and consumer information

Juiced-Up Juice (Consumer Reports) The Use of Probiotic Microorganisms in Food (Health Canada) Foods that Fight Cancer (Canadian Living)

Government websites

Functional Foods and Natural Health Products: Canada’s Competitive Advantages (The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service) What are Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals? (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)

Bianca Carducci

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