Functional Food

“Functional Foods” defines the physiologically active food components found in phytochemical (plants) and zoo chemical (animal) origins.  The science of functional foods has keep pace with scientific studies and research aimed at understanding the human condition as it relates to deficiency syndromes and the reduction of disease risk. 

In actuality, functional foods has been around since the 1920’s, when iodine was added to salt to prevent goiter. Yet, the term Functional Food was first used in Japan in the 1980s where there is a government approval process for functional foods called Foods for Specified Health Use (FOSHU). The functional food industry, consisting of food, beverage and supplement sectors, is one of the several areas of the food industry that is experiencing fast growth in recent years.

Functional foods fall into two basic categories:

  • Foods which there has been an established diet-disease relationship.
  • Foods that have been enriched or fortified to boost the level of specific nutrient or food component which assists in the prevention or treatment of disease.

Functional food many times labeled “medical foods”, “nutraceuticals”, “superfood”, “chemopreventative agents”, “pharmafood and “designer foods” claim physiological or psychological effects beyond essential nutrients.  While all foods are functional at some level, they remain undefined by U.S. regulation.  The functional foods industry is represented by any healthy or fictional food product claiming to have a health-promoting or disease-preventing property beyond the basic function of supplying nutrients. The general category of functional foods includes processed food or foods fortified with health-promoting additives, like “vitamin-enriched” products.  For example, making the claim that cereal is a significant source of fiber. And then to go on and say that research has shown that an increase in the amount of fiber in one’s diet can decrease the risk of certain types of cancer or making the claim that red wine and something in red wine called resveratrol might be heart healthy. Or add chocolate a “perfect food” to your diet to promote weight loss. Who wouldn’t like that to be true?

Let’s logically analyze another emerging functional food; the Acai berry highly touted by marketers who say it’s one of the elite superfoods with anti-aging and weight loss properties. Some manufacturers even use acai berries in cosmetics and beauty products and you can by it in a chew format at the grocery store to support your metabolism and weight loss program. Although acai is touted in some weight loss products, few studies have tested the benefit of acai in promoting weight loss. There’s no doubt that adding antioxidants’ to the diet in the form of whole berries and other fruits are a key part of any healthy diet promoting weight loss. Yet, the jury’s still out on whether there is something special about acai’s ability to shed excess pounds. Virtually all foods, even a chocolate bar, may provide special value in supporting health.

Functional foods can be categorized as:

  • Edible plants and phytochemicals
  • Probiotics and prebiotics
  • Immune modulators
  • Designer foods

Functional foods occur naturally in nature’s plan.  For example, drinking a half-cup of cranberry juice daily may reduce the incidence of urinary tract infections in women because cranberries contain a phytochemical that dislodges bacteria from the tract. But if you take concentrated cranberry tablets you can injure the urinary tract, causing kidney stones. Not so super after all. When I went to my Urologist and asked him about 100% cranberry juice and its effect on my urinary tract he just about died laughing.  He said if it was that easy, he wouldn’t be in the business of helping people with urinary health problems.

In the name of health and wellness, there is a huge amount of dietary advice aimed at the hopes and needs of a desperate general population uneducated and educated on the subject of functional foods and supplements.  After all is said and repeated, there is no scientific evidence to support functional foods or mega dosing with supplements. As in all food related benefits, High does of individual nutrients can create actual nutritional imbalances in the body.  Most studies fail to find significant benefits associated with the claims and use of functional foods and supplements.

The functional food industry manages to continually report the “possibility” and the “may-can” factor of a food producing a positive effect in its consumption and use.  Most claims made by the functional food industry appear without the approval of the Food and Drug Administration.  The foods need not be healthy and the actual ingredients need not be proven effective or safe.  Look for hedging claims such as “improves eye sight”, “may increase alertness”, “builds strong bones”, “prevents cancer”, or “prevents osteoporosis.” 

Always read the fact panel along with the claims and keep in mind that most of these products are not regulated for potency and purity, and there has been substantial variation between listed content. Of course, some functional foods qualify to make a genuine FDA health claim just as regulated foods substance. 

If you want to be “in the know” about functional foods, The International Food Information Council (IFIC) had built a qualitative and quantitative database of functional foods. They find that the top ten foods that consumers identify as having a health benefit beyond basic nutrition include broccoli (9 percent), fish or fish oil (9 percent), green, leafy vegetables (9 percent), oranges or orange juice (9 percent), carrots (8 percent), garlic (7 percent), fiber (6 percent), milk (6 percent), calcium (5 percent), oats/oat bran/oat-meal (6 percent), and tomatoes (6 percent). The top five foods have remained consistent for the past three surveys; they are associated with America’s top health concerns. Cardiovascular disease factors, including heart disease/attack, high blood pressure, stroke, and high cholesterol, remain the primary collective concern of American consumers. Cancer continues to concern almost a third (30 percent) of all consumers. Other areas of worry include weight (17 percent), diabetes (17 percent), and nutrition/diet (12 percent). Currently almost two-thirds (63 percent) of Americans say they are eating at least one food in order to receive a functional health benefit.

Today’s global environment should have serious concerns regarding the manufacturing and claims associated with functional foods.  Frances Sizer and Eleanor Whitney, authors of NUTRITION Concepts and Controversies, had this to say, “As is true of concentrated phytochemicals in supplement form, large does of purified phytochemicals added to foods may produce effects vastly different from those of the phytochemicals in whole food.”

Food-herb products sold under the name “Functional Foods” or other such names often contain untested medicinal herb. Herbs are in the category of unregulated substances, which can cause serious damage to health, wellness, and have contributed to consumer deaths. It needs to be reinforced that research has not reached a point in its evolution where it can identify which isolated phytochemicals, medicinal herbs, or other substances constituents appropriate manufacturing and testing of a functional foods.  Until neuroscientist, scientist, and researchers become more responsible with their food combinations and claims, consumers beware, because you are on your own in the area of safe and effective use of these food products.  Unfortunately we are the first wave of test subject.

When the rubber meets the road, choose foods close to the farm and to receive an array of benefits in food eat a wide variety of fresh whole food. There is no one or tow foods that are going to magically provide you health benefits. Take the over arching approach of choosing a wide variety of fruits and veggies to receive all of the health benefits offered by a balanced diet.


>U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health (NIH)

>Foundation for Integrated Medicine

>Functional Foods: A Simple Scheme for Establishing the Scientific Basis for all Claims. Ashwell, M. (2001)

>Handbook of Fermented Functional Foods (2003) Farnworth, E.R.

>Functional Foods Designer Foods, Pharmafoods, Nutraceuticals (1994) Chapman and Hall, New York.

>Sports Nutrition, Dominique Adair, MS, RD Workshop 2006-2008

>Nutrition Concepts and Controversies, Frances Sizer and Eleanor Whitney.

>URL sites to visit:




>Nutraceuticals/Functional Foods and Health Claims on Foods


>IFIS Publishing, International Food Information Service 

>Nutrition Department, Andrews University Functional Food written by DeBusk, R.

Article written for the American Dietetic Association, providing overview of health claims, safety issues, regulatory issues, and relevant definitions. 

>Institute of Food Technologist

Searchable directory of companies that provide ingredients in the categories of amino acids, antioxidants, botanicals, dietary fiber and prebiotics, dairy, enzymes, fruits and vegetables, grains, fats, oils, and fatty acids, nuts and legumes, probiotics, proteins, soy, sweeteners, vitamins and minerals, and specialty/others. Contact information and product descriptions are updated and provided annually.


>Food Quality and Standards Service, Nutrition and Consumer Protection Division, Food and Agriculture of the United Nations, Section III – Review of Existing National, Regional and International Regulatory Systems Governing the Production and Distribution of Functional Foods, 3.2.USA, page 7.


>The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)


>The American Heart Association (AHA)

>International Food Information Council: http:/

>Functional Foods for Health Program, University of Illinois:

>”Position of the American Dietetic Association: Food Fortification and Dietary Supplements.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 101 (2001): 115–125. Available at

>Position of the American Dietetic Association: “Phytochemicals and Functional Foods.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 99 (1999): 1278–1285. Available at

>FDA Consumer Report: “Staking a Claim to Good Health.” November/December 1998. Available at

>IFT Scientific Status Summary: “Functional Foods: Their Role in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.” November, 1998. Available at

>FDA/CFSAN: “Dietary Supplements Overview.” Available at

>FDA/CFSAN: “Claims That Can Be Made for Conventional Food and Dietary Supplements.” Available at