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Live Well: What Are Functional Foods?

April 19, 2024


The term “functional foods” has become more popular, especially among marketing professionals in the food industry.

There is no legal definition of the term, but functional foods generally contain ingredients that are beneficial to human health beyond basic nutrition. For example, foods that contain phytonutrients, dietary fibre, prebiotics, and probiotics are all considered functional. The two most common categories of functional foods are enriched and fortified.

Enriched foods have had nutrients added back to them because of losses during processing. For example, B vitamins and iron are frequently added back to cereal and bread because they are lost when grains are milled into flour.

Fortified foods have had nutrients added to them that were never present to begin with. Typically, these foods focus on nutrients that many people struggle to get enough of in their diet. Examples of fortified foods include the following:

  • Orange juice with added calcium
  • Butter with added plant sterols
  • Water with added vitamins
  • Milk with added vitamin D
  • Salt with added iodine

Prebiotics and probiotics are also considered functional foods. Prebiotics provide nourishment for the bacteria that live in your gut. Foods that are rich in prebiotics include Jerusalem artichoke, onions, garlic, bananas, and asparagus. Probiotics are live bacteria commonly found in fermented and cultured foods like sauerkraut, kombucha, and yogurt.

Technically, all foods are functional, even if they only provide energy. Many whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, yogurt, beans (legumes), nuts, fatty fish, and others contain nutrient-rich compounds that are naturally functional.

In summary, functional foods are widely used as marketing tools within the food industry. Pay close attention to food labels and ingredient lists to understand the health claims.

Whether you choose to include functional foods from whole foods or value-added foods, focus on those that are nutrient-dense, minimally processed, and have ingredients that support good health.