Nutrition Articles

The Quest for Functional Foods

Foods with Function or Designed for Deceit?

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All kinds of foods provide nutrients that your body needs. But some foods, known as "functional foods," do more for you body than just provide nutrients. They may also play a role in the prevention and treatment of certain chronic diseases. Orange juice is enhanced to help lower cholesterol; new sodas add ingredients that help you lose weight; and cultures added to yogurt boost your immune system, for example. The interest and demand for these functional foods is high and continues to grow as people recognize their potential to improve health and well-being.

There are many questions and concerns in this emerging field, as well as lurking danger and deception for uninformed consumers. It's crucial to make informed decisions about all the foods you choose to eat. While that is challenging and should be based on sound scientific evidence, this article will help you learn to separate the claims from the facts.

What are Functional Foods?
A globally-accepted definition for functional foods does not exist. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently has no legal definition at all. For now, the FDA has borrowed a definition from the Institute of Food Technologists stating that functional foods are "foods and food components that provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition." Some other organizations define functional foods slightly differently:
  • The Food and Nutrition Board of the American Institute of Medicine: "Any modified food or food ingredient that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains."
  • The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) states, "Functional foods, including whole foods and fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods, have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis, at effective levels."
This lack of consistent definitions demonstrates the absence of standards, which leads to a lot of confusion for consumers and professionals.

Can You Believe What You Read?
Every time you turn around, more food companies are enhancing their products with extra ingredients, supposedly transforming traditional foods into designer foods with properties that improve your health. Can you believe all these claims?

It depends on the source. Be wary of reports about one study that showed a benefit when eating a certain food. Never change your diet (or other habits) based on a single research study. On the other hand, if an article summarizes a number of studies that took place in people (not animals or cell cultures), then the information is probably balanced. Make sure the source is credible. When in doubt, write your question down and post your question on the Diet and Nutrition Message Board for the SparkPeople experts. You can also ask your health care provider whether the information is accurate, if it pertains to your specific health needs, and whether you should act on it.
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

  • This looks like some kind of brand war. And the "goal" is to catch eaters in the middle. No wonder Americans obsess over food, but still eat the wrong things. - 5/11/2014 12:13:22 AM
  • I think that advertisers are extremely adept at finding the 'right' information to add weight to their product claims. We as consumers should be very wary of any product that has been modified too much. My personal belief is that if it has been laboritory processed in any way, then it is less healthy for us. I always try to keep processing as my number one guide to food choices. I can't in any way believe that any ingredient would make a coke drink or any other fizzy drink for that matter - more healthy or "functional". Come on people!! we just want it to be more "functional" because we like the taste!! - 1/19/2012 4:38:26 PM
  • Eat whole organic foods, cook whole organic foods from scratch, if man messed with it, don't eat. If it has a label, don't eat it. - 10/30/2010 10:15:55 PM
  • The biggest challenge is to break people of the habit of believing what essentially amounts to a marketing ploy on most of these "functional foods." My biggest pet peeve is the word "enriched" in wheat products. I've read time and again that in order to claim to be enriched, the process the wheat went through actually REMOVES most of the natural nutrients from the wheat before artificially adding them back in. I also know that when I consume enriched products, I feel more bloated after I eat. Whole grains do NOT do this to me at all.

    I also think it comes down to a major problem with consumers (Americans especially): the quick fix. If you don't regularly eat a healthy diet, perhaps eating enriched or fortified products every now and again will solve your diet dilemma. If you consume tons of fried foods, perhaps taking some extra supplements will help you run that fat through your system faster. A magic pill, a super drink, an age-old simple remedy: when all we really need to do is learn balance in our diets and to add exercise into our lives (even if that just means taking a 15-minute walk every day). - 10/16/2010 11:37:33 AM
  • Not the least bit surprised at this article. Yogurt in itself is GREAT for your digestion alone, without the expensive probiotics they purport to have added to the mix. I promote yogurt to patients who are on antibiotics, due to the fact it adds back good flora to the intestine. Go ahead and indulge in Acttivia if it helps...for some it does more than others. Those of us with NORMAL guts, won't notice any difference, so why are you eating it?! - 9/20/2010 6:21:29 PM
  • Great article. The key word in the claims is "may" (It "may" help/affect/etc). My initial skepticism about any "functional foods" seems to be right where this article takes us. I hope to see updates or further info on any more "functional foods" that are sure to be popping up soon.
    - 6/29/2010 10:11:08 AM
  • Any yogurt with bacteria should be helpful to the body, if not in one way than another. Bacteria help in microbe competition. - 4/22/2010 10:04:37 AM
  • I agree with BethProverbs31, except for feeding chickens marine plants. That's not their natural type of feed. Otherwise, I agree - leave well enough alone. Food's been good enough for people for thousands of years, for the most part - why mess with it now?

    Having said this, I do think that there are times when it's important to add things to foods to make them healthier, but don't try to "health things up" just for the sake of marketing or other reasons.

    About Activia Yogurt, since this seems to be a minor theme here :) - I love the stuff! It's my favourite yogurt, with the exception of a natural, totally local product (with the exception of strawberries when they're not in season). I don't care what it's supposed to do - I love the taste & buy it whenever I know it's on sale, which, unfortunately, isn't often in my lil' town. - 4/3/2010 4:15:43 PM
  • Interesting. The only one of these I've tried is Actvia, which had my stomach twisted in pain within a couple of days. Maybe it had too much fiber or something for me -- I have the same reaction from even one bite of a FiberOne bar, though the FiberOne yogurt causes no problems. - 1/24/2010 1:15:33 PM
  • Thank you Becky!

    I tried Activia because it was on sale. I didn't care for the taste at all and returned to my Dannon Light & Fit for less calories and better taste.

    I tried it but never believed the hype. - 7/18/2009 3:16:56 PM
  • MAMITABITA
    Every now and then I notice a slight "fishy" taste in eggs. I thought it was my imagination, but the article states the chickens are being fed "marine algae." So I'm wondering now if that is the source of the odd flavor. That alone would be enough to keep me from spending extra for Omega-3 enriched eggs.

    I no longer buy mass-produced grocery store chicken since 12-15% of what you're buying is some strange brew of added flavorings and liquid. But I remember once several years ago the "fish" flavor was so pronounced in some chicken breasts I had to throw them out. I read later that fish meal was a major ingredient in poultry feed. I'm not sure if that still applies to current mass-market poultry management.

    I guess this is going off-topic, but the main thing I look for in buying eggs is not organic or Omega-3 enriched, but whether the eggs are from "cage free" or "free roaming" hens. The very little bit I've read about how mass-market chickens are handled was enough to make me want to support the more humane chicken/egg producers.

    Who ever thought there'd be so many things to consider with plain ole eggs.....
    - 5/30/2009 9:53:34 AM
  • ZOOTZE
    The ultimate in enhanced, "functional" foods may be flouridated water, which is credited (by many) for improving children's dental health, and which most consumers of public drinking water systems have no choice about. Also purchased by most people without thought are cows' milk enriched with Vitamins A and D, and wheat flour products enriched with iron, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and folic acid. These products all respond to widespread and damaging deficiencies in the supplemental nutrients. Imagine if one had to purchase bread and cereal made with enriched flour only as an expensive, boutique product, or if enriched cows' milk cost extra. Those products wouldn't do much to improve the health of the poor children who once suffered from rickets, would they? - 5/24/2009 7:13:44 PM
  • I tried Activa Vanilla/ peach/ strawberry...stil
    l needed a beano, fan and room freshner. It also turned my stool white. Everyday for 10 days. No difference but....

    The Greek Yogurt yikes! no time for gas went right through me. I no longer need a laxative. I would gladly do this once a month at home in the evening. - 5/1/2009 9:11:55 AM
  • BETHPROVERBS31
    I believe that sometimes people go too far in trying to improve upon God's already perfect creations, as in the case of the Activia yogurt. I see nothing wrong with feeding chickens marine plants, as they eat a vegetarian diet to begin with, but adding ingredients not normally found in the food to begin with or altering it's genetic make-up is treading on dangerous and unethical ground as far as I am concerned. God doesn't need our help in improving His already perfect creations. - 1/11/2009 10:46:18 AM
  • Re: orange juice with plant sterols which are heart healthy. I have to wonder about that. A while back, I was taking 2oz of oj with my nightly iron supplements to help with absorption. I think the oj contributed to my insulin resistance, which isn't very heart healthy either. Just wanted to share that thought. - 9/19/2008 3:50:35 PM

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