Functional Foods: Here’s What They Are & Why You Should Be Eating Them Daily

By Dr. Faith Coleman

More than ever before, consumers are showing an interest in improving their relationship between their diet and their health. At the same time, science and medicine is revealing the intimate association between the gut and the brain. Greater than 95 percent of the population believes that food can improve both physical and mental health, and that food, quality of life, and disease risk management all have a strong connection to each other. With that in mind, greater interest in preventive health, rising healthcare costs, health education, and the aging of the population are driving a fast-growing industry: functional foods.

According to the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago, functional foods are defined as common to the human diet, providing more nutrients than are necessary for development, maintenance, and growth. They may help prevent or treat a disease.

A functional food component, or ingredient, enhances physical or mental performance, or helps prevent or treat a disease or unfavorable condition. As the functional components of foods are identified and appreciated, they are added to conventional foods to create foods which are health-enhancing.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates what manufacturers can claim about nutrient content and the effects on health or disease, under the 1994 United States Dietary Supplement Health Education Act (DSHEA). The act recognizes the importance of nutrition and dietary supplements, as well as the benefits of health promotion and disease prevention.

The Dietary Supplement Safety Act of 2010 amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to more effectively regulate dietary supplements that may pose safety risks unknown to consumers. Manufacturers must submit research, including evidence of safety, for approval before a new formulation is marketed to the public.

What are the components of functional foods?

Dietary fiber

Dietary fibers are either soluble (dissolve in liquid) or insoluble (do not dissolve in liquid). Fiber is resistant to digestion by human gastrointestinal (GI) enzymes. Cellulose, pectin, and lignin are types of fiber. Some foods with soluble fiber include:

  • beans
  • oats
  • legumes
  • psyllium
  • barley
  • prunes

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The first functional component of food given approval to claim a health-enhancing effect was fiber. The claim, which appeared on packaging, encouraged consuming 25 grams of fiber per day from oat-containing foods, to reduce the risk of heart disease. Numerous studies show that an intake of dietary fiber of greater than 25 grams per day is associated with a significant reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease. The fiber lowers total cholesterol and low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), so-called “bad cholesterol.”

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that men who consumed greater than 27 grams of fiber per day (which was 10 grams of fiber per day greater than the general population of men), significantly decreased their risk of dying from coronary artery disease. Soluble fiber also lowers LDL cholesterol by altering glucose and cholesterol metabolism, reducing absorption of fat and cholesterol in the GI tract.

Organisms which are colonized in the colon cause fermentation of undigested fiber, providing fuel for the GI lining (mucosa.) The effect is associated with lowering serum cholesterol and decreasing the risk of colon and breast cancer. Undigested fiber also speeds up the passage of stool (transit time). There is less exposure of the GI mucosa to potentially cancer-causing compounds.

Probiotics and prebiotics

The GI tract is inhabited with an enormous number of a variety of microorganisms, affected by the foods eaten.

Probiotics are living organisms, which, in sufficient numbers, have beneficial effects on the population of bacteria in the GI tract. They may lower cholesterol, protect against gastrointestinal diseases, and enhance immune function. It was thought that the bacteria cause the probiotic effects, but it has also been shown that products produced by the bacteria may be the active agents. Some foods which contain probiotics are yogurt, kefir, fermented vegetables, and buttermilk.

Prebiotics are indigestible food ingredients which stimulate growth or activity of one or more types of bacteria in the colon. Soy oligosaccharides (types of sugar molecules) are one type of prebiotic.

Fermented milk, as a probiotic, increases the bacterial count in the colon. It inhibits production of cholesterol in the liver or redistributes cholesterol from blood to the liver.

Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria, probiotic microorganisms found in yogurt, help prevent disease-causing microorganisms from inhabiting the colon. Probiotics also strengthen the immune function of the GI mucosa, and some may protect the colon from carcinogens. Some compounds produced during fermentation may enhance reproduction of normal mucosal cells and inhibit production of abnormal mucosal cells.

Plant sterols and stanols

Plant sterols and stanols are functional food components found in yogurt or spreads used as substitutes for butter. They are chemically like cholesterol. These compounds act in the small bowel, lowering cholesterol by inhibiting its absorption. Sterols and stanols may also improve urinary symptoms and flow in patients with benign prostatic hypertrophy.

Fish oil – fatty acids

The benefits of fatty acids found in fish are receiving attention for their role in both risk and management of cardiovascular disease. They are showing benefits to health in several common diseases.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been known for 20 years to be important in the health of the nervous system, especially during development. Omega-3 rich foods are salmon, herring, anchovies, sablefish, whitefish, tuna, and others. Some eggs are enriched with omega-3 fatty acids. Common vegetable oils have a higher concentration of omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, although flaxseed, canola, mustard, walnut, and soybean vegetable oils are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Clinical studies have shown that intake of fish oil reduces serum triglyceride levels in both normal individuals and in people with hypertriglyceridemia. Triglycerides are a type of fat necessary for good health, but in excess contribute to a variety of heart diseases. Decreasing the blood triglyceride levels decreases the frequency of abnormal heart rhythms and slows the progress of coronary artery disease. In a study of post-menopausal women, coronary artery disease and strokes decreased as fish intake increased, from eating fish once monthly up to five times per week.

Soy Protein

The DSHEA allows health claims on the packaging of soy protein products. The FDA concluded that soy protein, consumed with a diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The amino acids in soy protein are different from the amino acids in animal protein. The soy-protein amino acids decrease the circulation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.


Glucosamine is a type of sugar compound synthesized from glucose in the body. It is found in all human tissues but is at its highest concentration in joint cartilage. Glucosamine supplements which include sulfates have shown favorable results in treating osteoarthritis, but their use is controversial. How they work is unclear.

In conclusion, everything you eat matters over time. The right variety of foods can make you healthier now and long-term. The future roles of functional foods must convince the public that the health benefits are genuine. The industry must be rigorously honest in their health claims, without exaggerating the truth. Foods modified with the addition of functional food components are often more expensive than foods which are not enhanced, but the public seems willing to pay for the health benefits.

Source: Study Finds

Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

Image: Unsplash

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