Everyone likes food with benefits which is why functional foods are often in the media. These foods claim to do everything from reducing cholesterol to boosting brain power. This week I examine exactly what a functional food is and whether they’re worth the investment.
A functional food doesn’t haven’t an official definition. It refers to most food as everything we eat has a physiological benefit. We use carbohydrate for energy and vitamins for our immune system. A new class of functional foods developed several decades ago that includes items that are modified by manufacturers to provide a nutritional boost beyond what is found in the original product.
Foods that are exceptionally functional in their natural form are the ones to eat more of. Fermented foods such as pickled vegetables and sauerkraut contain high amounts of probiotics. These assist with digestion and immune function. Wild fish contain high amounts of omega-3 which assist our heart and brain. Garlic contains potent medical properties.
Companies are increasingly marketing processed foods as functional. They do this through fortifying products with different nutrients. In some cases this is extremely beneficial to the population. It is mandatory in Australia for bread to have thiamine, folic acid and iodised salt added. It is compulsory for Vitamin D to be added to margarine and spreads.
Some manufactured products are permitted to have specific nutrients added but companies may choose not to include them. Chewing gum may have calcium added and certain vitamins can be included in caffeinated beverages. Non-alcoholic beverages such as water and soft drinks may be supplemented with fluoride. Salt products can be fortified with iodine.
Adding nutrients to foods will make a food healthier but it will not then make it a healthy food. Chocolate may have turmeric added and the benefits of cocoa, but this should still be considered an occasional food due to its high sugar content and empty calories. These types of functional foods are going to be expensive. You’re better off sourcing the antioxidant benefits of chocolate from fresh fruits and vegetables.
Manufactured functional foods play an important role for those who have a poor diet. However, the benefits from these foods won’t ever be as powerful as when nutrients are consumed as whole foods. This is because compounds in whole foods work synergistically and the process of isolating nutrients reduces their benefit. Relying on fortified products for nutrients is also more likely to cause adverse reactions or an overdose of specific vitamins or minerals.
Processed foods that are functional are increasing but be wary of the claims you read on packets. While these foods may be beneficial in promoting wellness, they will never compensate for a poor diet. Nothing can replicate the health benefits of eating a diverse diet of fresh whole foods. If you consume a diet that is packed with berries, fish, nuts, vegetables and wholegrains then your diet should be fortified to the max.