What are Functional Foods, Nutraceuticals

Everybody’s talking about antioxidant foods, probiotics, and other fortified foods that are supposed to be good for health. How much real benefit do these kinds of foods and nutritional supplements deliver, and what’s the best way to use them?

What are Functional Foods

Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals

According to Health Canada, there is no “universally accepted” definition for functional foods and nutraceuticals. In general, though, when doctors talk about functional foods, they are referring to foods that offer specific health benefits, or that have bioactive compounds that lower the risk of disease or improve health.

Nutraceuticals are special ingredients that have been isolated from functional foods for their medicinal or health benefits, but that are no longer whole foods. These are normally sold in supplement form.

Types of Functional Foods

If there is confusion over what exactly a functional food is, that’s mostly because there are so many kinds of functional foods. Is a tomato a functional food? How about a specially bred, highly nutritional strain of tomato, or a GMO tomato?

Functional beverages and foods tend to break down into four general types:

What are Nutraceuticals

Natural or basic foods: These are unmodified foods that naturally contain chemicals or ingredients that have health benefits, such as probiotics, prebiotics, antioxidants, fiber, or high vitamin content. Some examples include wolfberries, fish, soy, and Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes.

Processed functional foods with added ingredients: These kinds of foods are increasingly popular. It’s easy to find milk with added vitamin D, calcium-enriched fruit juice, packaged cereals with added vitamins and minerals, and dozens of other products with added “nutraingredients.”

Foods enhanced to have an active functional component: There are a number of ways that foods can be modified to include a vitamin or nutritional ingredient that wouldn’t naturally be there. Examples include GMO vegetables created to be more nutritious and eggs from flax-fed chickens that offer higher levels of omega fats.

Isolated nutraceutical supplements: These are ingredients that have been isolated from foods, such as those in the other three categories, and that are offered as supplements. Examples include fish oil capsules, naturally sourced vitamin C tablets, and dozens of other supplements on the nutraceuticals market.

Concerns About NutraIngredients and Functional Foods

Although it’s indisputable that many functional foods offer health benefits, there are some concerns about how they should be used and whether this benefit lives up to the marketing hype. Balance and good sense are key when using these kinds of foods and supplements. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to consult a doctor or other health professional for advice.

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