Have you heard about functional foods? Read on to learn what they are and whether or not they offer any health benefits.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no official definition for functional foods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as “whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence.”
In essence, functional foods may provide some health benefits and can be a source of micronutrients and macronutrients. They may also help in disease prevention and include fortified foods, phytonutrient-containing fruits and vegetables, fermented foods, fish and chocolate.
Fortified foods are considered functional, as they have vitamins and minerals added to them in order to prevent diseases. Vitamin D is added to milk, as it helps with calcium absorption, which is vital in the prevention of rickets and osteoporosis. Flour and cereals in the U.S. are fortified with folic acid, a B vitamin that is important in the prevention of neural tube defects in infants. Some types of salt contain iodine, which may prevent intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as enlarged thyroid glands. Many of these foods are the result of public health initiatives to prevent many diseases in populations that do not consume a nutrient-dense diet.
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Fruits and vegetables are considered functional foods because they have specific compounds that have been shown to prevent and reduce certain diseases. These compounds are known as phytonutrients and include lycopene, anthocyanin, beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, isothiocyanate and allicin.
Red fruits, including tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon, papaya and guava, contain lycopene, which has been linked to a reduction in certain types of cancer. Purple fruits and vegetables (or drinks made from these foods), like grapes, red wine, blueberries and eggplants, contain anthocyanin, which is linked to lower blood pressure and a reduction in heart attacks.
Orange fruits and vegetables, including carrots, apricots, butternut squash and sweet potatoes, contain beta-carotene, which may help prevent macular degeneration. Yellow fruits and vegetables, such as citrus, peaches, persimmons and nectarines, contain beta-cryptothanxin, which is linked with improved eyesight, growth and immune function.
Green fruits and vegetables, such as spinach, collard greens, mustard greens and avocado, contain lutein and zeaxanthin, which may help in the prevention of cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and heart disease. Some green vegetables, including broccoli, bok choi and kale, contain isothiocyanate, a nutrient linked with cancer reduction.
Fermented foods are also considered functional because they contain probiotics, which are healthy bacteria that are beneficial for digestion. Probiotics can also help with immune function.
Fermented foods include unpasteurized pickled vegetables, such as dill pickles, kimchi and sauerkraut. If pickled vegetables are store bought, make sure they are not pasteurized as the process kills the probiotics. Kombucha and yogurt also contain probiotics.
Wild fish are a great functional food, as they contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and are associated with lowering triglyceride levels and promoting blood flow. Salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna and swordfish contain the highest amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Smaller amounts are found in halibut, cod and shrimp.
Generally, fish caught in the wild is recommended over farmed fish. If you don’t consume fish, other sources of omega-3 include walnuts and flaxseed.
Chocolate is also considered a functional food because the cocoa in chocolate contains flavonoids, which may boost endorphin and serotonin levels. Dark chocolate contains more flavonoids compared to milk chocolate. Remember to consume chocolate in moderation, as it can contain high levels of saturated fat per an ounce.
Food can be a very powerful way to combat and prevent diseases. A well-balanced diet can help you stay fit and healthy.
by Kelly Corrigan
If you’re curious as to what other foods can be beneficial for you, reach out to your primary care physician for advice. If you live in Southern California and are in search of a primary care physician, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/ to schedule an appointment.