Functional foods refer to foods that provide nutritional benefits other than those derived from essential nutrients (e.g., vitamins and minerals) when consumed regularly at effective levels as part of a balanced diet. They help make your health better by making it hard for you to get some of the most serious lifestyle diseases.
While there are such foods that can be referred to as naturally functional, those fortified with additional nutrients also fall into this category. Thus any foods with enhanced botanical, phytochemical, and nutritional content are functional. That includes all the dietary supplements available on the market.
In fact, some nutritionists seem to suggest that all foods are functional. They argue that so long as the foods are being eaten as part of a healthy and balanced diet, then they are definitely functional. Yet not all foods currently on the market which are claimed as functional foods, however, have been supported in their claims by sufficient robust data to substantiate potential benefits.
Functional Food Components
While functional foods can be both plant and animal-based, they have some characteristics in common. The following are three of the common compounds that give these foods the power to fight and prevent chronic diseases:
If they contain a high value of phytochemicals, then they are highly likely to be referred to as functional foods. Phytochemicals are naturally occurring, active chemicals that act as health boosters. They are found in huge amounts in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, soybeans, ginger, garlic, chives, and parsley.
Most functional foods also have a very high content of antioxidants like vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium. Antioxidants are useful in the body when it comes to fighting the free radicals that cause chronic diseases such as heart disease. Examples include tea, citrus fruits, berries, and grapefruits.
Foods that contain lots of soluble fiber are also considered to be functional. When it gets into the bloodstream, soluble fiber helps lower the levels of cholesterol. That is beneficial when it comes to improved heart health. Examples include oats, soybean, and nuts of different types.
Functional Foods Examples
As earlier observed, there are many examples of functional foods that one can eat. It depends on which of the characteristics discussed above the particular type of food has. The following are some of the best functional foods you can eat on a daily basis:
Apart from having a high fiber content, oats also feature phytochemicals or saponins. The most common soluble fiber in oats is known as B-Glucan or Beta Glucan. Together, these chemicals work to reduce the total blood cholesterol and, especially LDL cholesterol.
It is also very effective when it comes to lowering blood pressure. These can be eaten in various forms including whole oats, whole-oat bread, low-fat granola, oatmeal, and other products made of whole oats.
In general, blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries or blackberries are all great functional foods. The anthocyanin pigments present in berries, which add color, are beneficial to health. These compounds fall into the large group of substances known as flavonoids.
Several nutritional studies have been conducted on flavonoids that have turned them into preventive nutrients capable of maintaining people’s health, while some may help in the reduction of tumors or in the treatment of certain diseases.
Anthocyanins also act in a similar way, and these pigments are highly effective due to their antioxidant function. For those who cannot get fresh berries, sugar-free frozen berries can be considered an excellent alternative.
Most of the fatty fish contain the Omega-3 fatty acids including DHA and EPA. These are useful in the body since they help to reduce the likelihood of one having coronary heart disease. The functional foods in this category include Flounder, Trout, Sardines, Halibut, Striped Bass, Tuna, and Salmon.
As one of the naturally functional foods, soybeans have a very high protein content. Apart from that, soybeans are also a source of phytochemicals like genistein and isoflavones. Apart from having a high nutritional value, eating soybeans helps reduce total as well as LDL cholesterol.
Soy is a versatile food ingredient that can be used to make soynuts, miso, tempeh, tofu, and edamame. These often serve as a great alternative to meat for those who eat a vegan diet.
The human body needs a steady supply of good bacteria which help promote gastrointestinal health. Lactobacillus is the most common probiotic. Apart from supporting gastrointestinal health, probiotics also help boost immunity. The foods with high probiotic content include yogurt, tempeh (fermented soy), and fermented vegetables.
Nuts of all types are known to contain healthy fats and antioxidants such as vitamin E. They are effective in reducing the likelihood of you getting coronary heart disease. Examples of these foods include almonds, Brazil nuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, peanuts, pistachios, pecans, and walnuts.
The component that makes tomatoes one of the functional foods is lycopene, a phytochemical. Lycopene is proven to be effective when it comes to preventing the development of prostate cancer. It is also highly likely to be effective when it comes to reducing heart disease and other types of cancer.
You will benefit from this phytochemical whether you are eating fresh tomatoes or salsa, tomato soup, gazpacho, tomato soup, tomato paste, diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, and canned tomatoes.
Just why are leafy greens functional foods? They contain phytochemicals such as zeaxanthin, lutein, apigenin, sulforaphane, and carotenoids. Carotenoids prevent cancer by preventing the entry of carcinogens into the cells.
Apigenin and sulforaphane protect the heart while lutein reduces the incidence of blindness among the senior citizens. Zeaxanthin, on the other hand, is an effective immune booster. The foods in this category include arugula, broccoli sprouts, broccoli rabe, broccoli, collards, kale, spinach, and other green vegetables.
Dark Chocolate and especially Cocoa,its main component, by virtue of its high amounts of flavonoids, a certain type of polyphenol with antioxidant properties, is considered a functional food offering a number of benefits including lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation, lowering total serum and LDL cholesterol, and inhibiting platelet adhesion (antithrombotic activity), which can contribute to the prevention of cardiovascular disease.
The antioxidant content of chocolate is determined by how the chocolate is processed and the type of chocolate. In some processing methods such as toasting, the flavonoid content of chocolate is reduced.
Red Wine or Grape Juice
Excessive alcohol consumption is a major cause of serious adverse health conditions, compared to moderate consumption of wine, which is known to be associated with reduced incidence of the cardiovascular disease.
Procyanidins – a subclass of flavonoids found in red wine inhibit the overproduction of endothelin-1, a peptide that constricts blood vessels and therefore helps to improve cardiovascular health through moderate wine consumption.
In addition, red wine contains another important ingredient, trans-resveratrol, which is a phytoalexin naturally found in grape skins. Resveratrol benefits include estrogenic properties, including cardiovascular benefits, as well as inhibiting carcinogenesis in vivo. Other studies have shown that grape juice can effectively inhibit the oxidation of LDL.
It is one of the reasons why you should include taking a little wine into your regular diet. Examples of functional foods in this category include 100 percent grape juice, grape juice mixtures, and any type of red wine.
Functional foods have become a widely explored area of research in the current scientific world of food and nutrition. Emphasis should be placed, however, on the fact that these foods and ingredients do not constitute miracle or cure-all remedies geared to improving health habits.
If you are looking for a better way to eat, you may want to consider diet as just one of several components of taking a holistic approach to wellness. Apart from filling your stomach and giving you the nutrition you need, functional foods help keep lifestyle diseases at bay.
If your goal is to remain healthy for a long time to come, start incorporating these foods into your diet. You may want to rotate them just to have a taste of the different flavors they provide. Enjoy the journey to good health.