A guide to functional foods

They’re super important!

Do you want to live longer, have a higher quality of life and reduce risk of disease? Are you part of the “food as thy medicine” movement? If so, you fit the profile of consumers who want to learn more about functional foods.

Today’s wellness-minded consumer has a keen focus on refining dietary choices. There are more healthy choices than ever and more cutting edge-research—not all of it consistent.

Functional foods are an essential part of the mix. To benefit from this food category, you need to differentiate between real evidence and health claims based on shaky science or murky labeling.

According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, functional foods provide benefits beyond basic nutrition and may play a role in reducing the risk of certain diseases and other health conditions. Examples include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, forti- fied foods and beverages and some dietary supplements.

Oatmeal, with soluble fibre that can help lower cholesterol levels, is a familiar example. Some foods are modified to have health benefits, such as orange juice that’s been fortified with calcium for bone health.

According another definition, a functional food may be modified by removing a component, altering the bioavailability of some components or simply altering components in some way.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada defines functional food as: “foods enhanced with bioactive ingredients and which have demonstrated health benefits.”

In practical terms, functional foods are high in functional components. These include carotenoids like lutein found in greens and eggs that support eye health; dietary fibre found in bran and cereal grains that support digestive health and may reduce risk of heart disease and cancer; fatty acids found in nuts and oils that support brain, heart and eye health; probiotics; and vitamins and minerals.

The savvy consumer must be on guard to avoid falling prey to health claims that are light on proven benefits. Moreover, individual products or ingredients are no replacement for a poor diet or overall bad health habits. It’s too simplistic to think that yogurt with added probiotics will heal a chronic digestive issue.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada defines functional food as: “foods enhanced with bioactive ingredients and which have demonstrated health benefits.”

Learn to read labels and look for products that contain whole foods that are minimally processed. Common sense is your greatest asset. If it looks and tastes like junk, even if it has a “reduced cholesterol” stamp, it’s probably still junk.

More Insight: Check out this insightful article on the top 5 best foods for your immune system.


  • Alex Hurst

    Alex Hurst is a writer for HUM@Nmedia covering Optimyz and Silver magazines in print and digital editions and is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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