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What are Functional Foods?
Most foods are functional, providing protein for muscle repair, carbohydrates for energy or vitamins & minerals for cell function. However, functional foods are foods that can provide added health benefits beyond basic nutrition. Also known as nutraceuticals, these foods may support optimal health and help reduce the risk of disease including diabetes, cancer, digestive disorders and heart disease.
Functional Foods Basics
Functional foods include a variety of foods. Minimally processed, whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods, can all be functional foods. They are generally separated into two categories: conventional and modified.
- Conventional– these foods are natural with whole-food ingredients Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seafood, fermented food, herbs & spices, along with some beverages, are conventional functional foods. A familiar example is oatmeal, as it contains soluble fiber naturally that can help lower cholesterol.
- Modified– these foods have added ingredients, including vitamins, minerals, probiotics & fiber, to enhance health benefits. Fortified foods, including juices, grains, cereal and dairy products, are modified functional foods. An example is orange juice that has been fortified with calcium to enhance bone health.
- Functional foods are generally nutrient-dense, especially the conventional ones. They can be rich in antioxidants, phytonutrients, fiber, omega-3 fats, vitamins and minerals.
- The Food and Drug Administration regulates the claims that manufacturers can make about functional foods and their impact on health. This applies to both conventional and modified functional foods.
Boost Functional Foods for Health
When possible, consider focusing on minimally processed functional foods for optimal health, such as:
- Fish – sardines, herring & salmon. Rich in omega-3 fats, which may help lower the risk of heart disease. Strive for 8oz/week.
- Whole Grains – barley, farro, buckwheat and oatmeal. Rich in fiber which may lower cholesterol and improve blood sugar.
- Fruit – berries are rich in phytonutrients that give them color & may offer health benefits.
- Vegetables – from the 5-subgroups: red/orange, dark green, legumes, starch & “other”. Rich in fiber & phytonutrients.
- Herbs & Spices – turmeric & ginger are packed with antioxidants. Cinnamon may help lower blood sugar & cholesterol.
- Beverages – coffee, green or black tea are rich in antioxidants to support healthy aging.
The Bottom Line
Keep in mind that while functional foods may help promote wellness, they cannot make up for poor eating habits. A healthful eating pattern, which includes a variety of minimally processed, colorful fruits & vegetables with foods from each food group, can help you meet your nutrient needs and reduce your risk of chronic diseases.
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