The Quest for Functional Foods

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.

Evaluating Popular Functional Foods
Let's use good judgment (and a little research) to evaluate some popular functional foods on the market today.

Activia Yogurt by Dannon
Dannon claims that "Activia Yogurt is clinically proven to help naturally regulate your digestive system in two weeks." The functional ingredient of this yogurt is the bacteria bifidum regularis.

Evaluation: There is no research showing that Activia Yogurt helps people who are bloated and irregular. Four studies have been conducted on “healthy” men and women who had no complaints of gastrointestinal problems. After two weeks, it took between 10 and 30 fewer hours for food to travel through their intestinal tracts. Dannon reports that this can reduce gas production, but they really don’t know since gas production was not measured. Dannon reports that this can also help with bloating, but since these volunteers had no intestinal complaints to begin with, no one knows this for sure.

Enviga by Coca-Cola & Nestle
The producers of Enviga claim that "when consumed regularly as part of a healthy diet and an exercise regime, Enviga may provide added benefits to help in weight control by boosting metabolism." The functional ingredients of this 12-ounce beverage include: 90 milligrams of green tea extract (known as epigallocatechin gallate or EGCG for short), 100 milligrams of caffeine, 20% of the daily value for calcium.

Evaluation: There is limited research on the calorie-burning efforts of EGCG and caffeine. The company funded research that reports drinking three cans daily, will boost your metabolism by 100 calories daily. However, the experiment lasted just three days and involved 32 people—a small number of subjects. All the participants were either lean or of normal body weight too. So who knows whether Enviga even affects the metabolisms of those who are overweight or obese?

Eggs fortified with Omega 3s
Many companies now offer Omega-3-enriched eggs, claiming that you can get your daily supply of Omega-3 fatty acids from these eggs instead of turning to salmon and tuna, for example. The functional ingredients of these eggs include: 100-150 milligrams of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are two types of Omega-3 fatty acids.

Evaluation: The chickens that produce these eggs are fed a diet of marine algae (the same food source that gives fish their high omega-3 contents). This diet results in a naturally-fortified egg that tastes like a regular egg. Research shows that DHA and EPA are essential fatty acids that play important roles in health, immunity, and the prevention of heart disease. Experts recommend consuming between 500 and 1800 milligrams of EPA and DHA (combined) daily. These eggs may help contribute to your Omega-3 intake, but they don’t contain enough to make up for a diet that is otherwise low in Omega-3s.

Heart Wise orange juice by Minute Maid
Minute Maid claims that this is the “first orange juice proven to help lower cholesterol.” The functional ingredient of this juice is 1 gram of plant sterols per 8-ounce juice serving.

Evaluation: Plant sterols are a natural plant extracts that have been clinically proven to help lower total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol and inhibit the absorption of cholesterol. Foods may reduce the risk of heart disease if they contain at least 0.4 grams of plant sterols per serving and are consumed twice daily with meals, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol. An 8-ounce serving of Minute Maid Heart Wise orange juice contains 1 gram of plant sterols and meets this criteria. Remember that to receive this benefit, you’d have to drink 8 ounces of OJ every day, and eat a heart-healthy diet (as described above).

As you can see, you can't believe everything that you read on a label. Determining whether or not the latest functional food does what it claims to might involve a little detective work on your part. You can also use the following tips to evaluate health claims and make informed choices.

10 Questions to Ask Yourself when Considering a Functional Food
  1. What is the functional ingredient? Is it naturally available in the food or added?
  2. What type of claim is being made? Is there convincing scientific research to support the claim or is the research contradictory?
  3. Is the manufacturer (brand) an established company with a good reputation? Have you bought foods from this manufacturer in the past?
  4. Does the label tell you how much of the ingredient the food contains?
  5. Is the supplemented ingredient level too high or too low? Find out the recommended daily intake and the maximum amount recommended. Apply this to how often will you ingest this food and other foods/supplements that contain it. Is it enough to make a difference? Are you getting too much of this ingredient?
  6. How does this functional food fit in with your diet and use of over-the-counter or prescription medications? Are there foods that may interfere with the absorption of this component? Could this component cause a food-drug interaction that would be detrimental to your health?
  7. In what biological form is the component added? Is it in a form that is easily absorbed and metabolized by the body?
  8. Do the other nutrition aspects of the functional food fit into your overall health goals? How many calories from fat or sugar does this product contain?
  9. Compare the cost of this functional food to the regular food. Is the cost worth the added benefit?
  10. Will the way this food is prepared (heated, stored, frozen) affect its potency?
The Bottom Line
Like most things in life, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. No amount of functional, enriched, enhanced, or designer foods can make up for an otherwise unhealthy diet and inactive lifestyle. After all, Mother Nature provides the only functional foods you really need—antioxidant-packed fruits, veggies full of phytochemicals, fiber-rich whole grains, and more. These foods are proven to prevent disease and enhance your health…naturally!