Functional foods are all the rage. Despite the trendy name, functional foods have always been with us, though. In your great-grandmother’s day, it was simply called “food”. She probably cooked whole foods she or someone nearby had grown in local soil. She probably cooked her meals from scratch, too. Great-grandma was probably a functional foods expert—whether she knew it or not. If she ever pulled spinach out of the garden, gathered walnuts, or grew a beet and served it for supper, she was ahead of her time. She was preparing her family meals with functional foods.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states: “Terms such as “functional foods” or “nutraceuticals” are widely used in the marketplace. Such foods are regulated by FDA under the authority of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, even though they are not specifically defined by law.”
What Are Functional Foods?
Rather than wander into the labyrinth of confusing government regulations and terminology, let us simply define functional foods as those that provide added value for the buck. Most people know that we require a few minimal nutrients to survive. We each need a certain number of calories, for instance, and complete protein (featuring all eight essential amino acids), as well as certain essential vitamins, minerals and trace elements. In this context, “essential” refers to any nutrient the body must have to thrive, and cannot make; it must come from the diet.
We also require certain fats, such as the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Functional foods also provide dietary components that offer more subtle benefits. Examples include soluble and insoluble fiber, which aid bowel function and encourage healthful friendly bacteria populations in the digestive tract. Functional foods often contain any number of phytonutrients. These are plant compounds you won’t find on any government-mandated nutritional labeling.
Nevertheless, they often provide important health benefits. Examples of this include the potent antioxidant pigment compounds found in bright, (naturally) colorful foods. Compounds called anthocyanins, for example, needn’t be listed or measured, but they’re the reason your blueberries are so blue—and so very healthful.
Essentially, functional foods go the extra mile for us. They don’t merely keep us alive, they enhance health. Another example of a functional foods is spinach. It supplies nutrients called dietary nitrates. Again, you won’t find “nitrates” listed on any mandated labeling, but these natural plant compounds are converted in the body into an important chemical that the body uses to help regulate blood pressure. Thus, spinach is a functional food that not only supplies iron and other ordinary nutrients—it also helps keep your cardiovascular system healthy.
Meal preparation with functional foods is simple when you learn to shop from the produce and whole foods aisles. Incorporating these nutrient-dense (but seldom calorie-dense) foods into the daily menu can be a fun way to enhance health, boost immunity and hopefully prevent cardiovascular disease. Choose whole fresh or frozen fruits, vegetables, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, fish, and other whole foods. Look for bright colors among produce items; color usually signals the presence of healthful pigment compounds.
Cooking method affects the ultimate nutrient content of the foods we eat, too. You’ll get more health-protecting lycopene from your tomatoes, for example, if they’re cooked and consumed with a little oil. Consider steaming or lightly stir-frying foods like broccoli, kale, cauliflower and spinach.