Currently there is a lot of buzz about functional foods, but what exactly are functional foods?
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no official definition for functional foods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics define 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.”
Basically, functional foods are foods that provide a health benefit in addition to macro and micronutrients. These foods are vital 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 essential in the prevention of neural tube defects in infants. Some types of salt contain iodine, which prevents 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.
Call for an Appointment
(800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273)
Fruits and vegetables are considered functional foods, as they have specific compounds that have been shown to prevent and reduce diseases. These compounds are known as phytonutrients and include lycopene, anthocyanin, beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, isothiocyanate and allicin.
Red fruits, including tomatoes, pink grapefruits, watermelons, papayas and guavas, contain lycopene. Studies have shown that lycopene is associated with a reduction in prostate, lung and stomach cancer. Red and purple fruits and vegetables (or drinks based on them), such as grapes, red wine, grape juice, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, cherries, eggplants, black plums, blood oranges and red cabbage, contain anthocyanin, which is linked to decreased blood pressure and a reduction in heart attacks.
Orange fruits and vegetables, including carrots, mangoes, apricots, cantaloupes, pumpkin, butternut squash and sweet potatoes, contain beta-carotene, which prevents macular degeneration. Yellow fruits and vegetables, such as citrus, peaches, persimmons, papayas and nectarines, contain beta-cryptothanxin, which is linked with improved eyesight, growth and immune function.
Yellow and green fruits and vegetables, such as spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, yellow corn, green peas, avocado and honeydew melon, contain lutein and zeaxanthin, which are essential in the prevention of cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and heart disease. Green vegetables, including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choi and kale, contain isothiocyanate, which is liked with cancer reduction. White vegetables, including garlic, onions, celery, pears, endives and chives, contain allicin, which is shown to have antitumor effects.
Fermented foods are considered functional foods, as they contain probiotics, which are healthy bacteria that are beneficial for digestion and help with the symptoms of constipation and diarrhea. 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. Yogurt also contains probiotics, but it can be purchased pasteurized, as the probiotics are added after. Kombucha is another great source of 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.
It is important to consume wild fish, as farmed fish often do not contain high levels of omega-3, due to corn-based feed they receive. If you do not consume fish, other sources of omega-3 include walnuts, flax seed and omega-3-fortified milk and eggs.
Finally, yes, chocolate is considered a functional food, as the cocoa in chocolate contains flavonoids, which boost endorphin and serotonin levels. It also has a similar effect as a low dose of aspirin by thinning the blood. 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. When it comes to functional foods, it is important to consume the whole food because all the compounds within the food work synergistically. For example, populations that consumed beta-carotene-containing foods had decreased incidences of lung cancer. However, when beta-carotene was isolated and put into a supplement form, people experienced adverse health effects. So it is not just the beta-carotene that prevents disease, but rather, it’s the whole carrot.
A diet that contains a balance of fruits, vegetables, pickled vegetables, yogurt and omega-3 rich sources is sure to help prevent diseases. If you can’t get all your nutrients from whole foods, consider fortified foods, as they contain nutritional benefits as well.
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 are local to 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.