What Is A Functional Food?

One of the most fascinating and commonly misunderstood topics in the health food world is the humble superfood and finding a definition for all the different types of fruits, berries, spices and everything else superfood suppliers offer.

This is complicated by how there is no universally agreed definition to cover such a broad range of foods, but the most common one used is that a superfood is one that is more nutrient-rich and filled with bioactive compounds such as antioxidants than most.

Superfoods make a good diet better but cannot necessarily make a bad diet good; a single superfood such as kale or dragon fruit can help add extra nutrition to a balanced diet, but it cannot serve as a panacea or transform a diet by itself.

This is also the case with a concept very closely connected to the superfood: functional food.

First used in 1980s Japan where such foods are also known as FOSHU (FOods for Specified Health Use), functional foods are foods that claim to have an extra function to them, either due to being naturally nutrient-rich similar to superfoods or because they have been modified in some way.

The term, whilst used in some circles, is less popular than superfoods because it is far too broad in nature. After all, most foods fulfil a function, provide nutrition and keep people from starving, so what makes a “functional food” greater than this?

Many foods that are considered to be functional foods are ones that are commonly used as either superfoods or part of health goods such as kale, chia seeds, turmeric, green tea, bananas and a variety of different berries, although it does open the door for oily fish, whole grains and a wider number of fruits.

Meanwhile, functional foods also include fortified grains, dairy and dairy alternatives, which add additional fibre, minerals and vitamins to everyday essential foods commonly seen as nutrient deficient, or containing vitamins most diets have a deficiency of such as vitamin D.

There is also a curious middle ground that does not involve modified foods necessarily but vegetables and natural foods that are specifically bred for the purpose of adding extra nutrients to fruits and vegetables.

A common example of this is honey, which contains a range of antioxidant and nutritional benefits depending on the types of pollen used by bees to make the nectar, as well as purple or gold potatoes, which contain more compounds commonly connected to superfoods.

Functional foods should not be confused necessarily with the similar but far more controversial world of functional beverages such as isotonic sports drinks, energy drinks and weight loss beverages.

The former two, in particular, often contain high amounts of sugar, sugar substitutes and caffeine and can sometimes, although not always, be marketed as a substitute for more nutrient-rich foods, which can be potentially problematic.

Functional foods as a term has been largely supplanted by the more specific term superfood in the eyes of many people, although it is still occasionally used to define foods that have been modified in one way or another to become nutrient rich.


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