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A guide to
nutrition

What are
functional foods?

Probiotics &
your health

Obesity –
an Irish epidemic

Nutrition & pregnancy

Your digestive system

The role of vitamins & minerals

Finland – a case
study in healthy
eating


Health Calculators

 


What is functional food?
What are examples of functional food?
What is the future of functional foods?
How relevant is functional food in the diet?

What are functional foods?
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, knew well the role of food in good health, proclaiming 24 centuries ago: ‘Let food be thy medicine’. In recent years, consumers have begun to look at food not only as a source of energy but also for health benefits. A concept originally conceived in Japan, the development of ‘functional food’ is relatively recent and is the leading food industry trend, according to food experts.

Functional foods do not have an internationally agreed definition but they can be defined as foods that provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition.

A functional food can contain an added ingredient that makes the traditional food functional e.g. probiotic bacteria added into traditional yogurt. However, a food can also be naturally functional eg. oatmeal which naturally contains beta-glucan which has been proven to reduce blood cholesterol levels.


What are some examples of functional foods?
Functional foods can be divided into categories, eg. according to their health benefit: gut, bone, heart and immune system health.

Gut health
Dairy products dominate the area of functional foods for gut health. Common gut health products include fermented milk and yogurt drinks.

The most common gut health ingredients include probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics.

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help maintain the balance of beneficial and harmful bacteria in the gut whereas prebiotics are a natural food for probiotic bacteria thus supporting their growth. A symbiotic product contains both a probiotic and a prebiotic ingredient.

Bone health
Most functional foods that claim a bone health benefit are fortified with calcium. Examples include calcium enriched yogurts, milk and orange juice. Sometimes vitamin D is also added to these products, as it is essential for the absorption of calcium.

Heart health
Heart health products focus on reducing the risk factors for cardiovascular disease including elevated blood cholesterol levels and hypertension. The most common ingredients used in heart health products include soya, omega-3 fatty acids and phytostanols and phytosterols. All of these have shown to have cholesterol-lowering ability. Examples of heart health foods include margarines with plant sterols or stanols, omega-3 enriched eggs and cereals with soya.

Immune system health
Functional foods that claim to enhance the immune system have mainly been fortified with vitamins or contain probiotic cultures. Some probiotics have an ability to boost the immune system and the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E can increase the resistance of the body to infection. Many of these products have also an effect on heart or gut health.

Examples of foods that can boost your immune system include probiotic milk and probiotic yogurt drinks.


What is the future of functional foods?

The demand for functional food is being driven by a growing public understanding of the link between diet and disease, and interest in self-health maintenance, rising healthcare costs and advances in food technology and nutrition.

As their understanding of the health benefits of eating certain foods grows, people are increasingly seeking to prevent disease through nutritional means.

Only the Japanese have strict regulations in place to govern the area of functional foods. There is no specific European legislation on these products, but the EU is currently working to draw up regulations, which are anticipated at the end of 2004. In the meantime, existing laws on misleading claims and food safety are strictly enforced.


How relevant is functional food in the diet?
Functional foods can be a beneficial addition to the diet e.g. in boosting folic acid or calcium intake from the diet. However, they should not be used to replace a healthy balanced diet and an active lifestyle.

 

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Welcome | A guide to nutrition | What are functional foods? | Probiotics & your health
Obesity – an Irish epidemic | Nutrition & pregnancy | Your digestive system
The role of vitamins & minerals | Finland – a case study in healthy eating
Health Calculators