Functional Foods 22 May 2015

The concept of functional foods has been around for centuries. In the 1700s, English sailors discovered that oranges and lemons helped cure scurvy (vitamin C deficiency), and in ancient Egypt, vitamin A deficiency was cured by eating chicken liver. Maybe you know someone who has been advised to eat one banana a day to treat low blood potassium. A glass of orange juice is a common treatment for low blood sugar. A daily serving of prunes is a typical practice for people needing a little help with digestive regularity. In fact, all food is functional to some degree as it provides energy and nutrients.

As an RD Nutritionist (RDN), after years of studying and practicing the science of food and nutrition, I realize that I see most foods in a functional sense. RDNs translate the science of nutrition into practical solutions for healthy living. The concept of a relationship between diet and health is at the core of our profession. For example, I see broccoli, and I think vitamins A, C, E and fiber. I see an egg, and I see the most complete set of amino acids found in a single food that translates to body growth and repair. On the flip side, I look at a large soda, and I think rotten teeth, diabetes and obesity. Or I look at sausage, and I think artery clogger. I know, it is warped. It gets really bad after I have been practicing prescriptive nutrition all week long. Friday night comes, and I just want to turn off my RDN brain and go out and eat whatever I want simply for the joy of eating.

To make things more interesting and challenging, the world of functional foods has been taken to a whole new level. Factors like rapid advances in science and food technology, an aging population and increasing healthcare costs have resulted in increasing public interest in the relationship between diet and health. Over the past two decades, nutrition research is no longer focusing on nutrient deficiency diseases but rather is exploring how food substances can lower disease risk. Consumers are looking for food to achieve health benefits beyond basic nutrition.

Eating for good health has become both a goal for many consumers and a market niche for the food industry. Functional foods now include modified foods that contain food compounds through enrichment or fortification, like omega 3 fatty acids in eggs or chia seeds added to corn chips. The functional food and drink market is a billion dollar industry. At the same time, there is no legal meaning in the US for functional foods. It is a marketing term and is not heavily regulated.

The big question becomes is it really worth spending your hard earned money on a more expensive cereal fortified with an insignificant amount of omega 3s when you could get more bang for your buck by eating a can of tuna? In other words, the amount of a marketed functional substance may or may not be in an amount or form that provides benefit to health. My practical advice as an RDN is to remember that food nutrients and substances act in synergy for optimal health. As an old friend used to tell me, “Keep it real.” Spend your money on whole, less processed foods, and eat a variety of colors of the rainbow.

References:

  1. http://www.eatright.org/resources/food/resources/learn-more-about-rdns
  2. http://www.eatrightpro.org/resource/media/press-releases/new-in-food-nutrition-and-health/consumers-look-to-functional-foods-to-improve-health-lower-costs-of-care-position-of-academy
  3. http://www.foodinsight.org/Background_on_Functional_Foods

Brenda Braslow, MS, RD, CDE

Brenda is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Denver,

Colorado who specializes in diabetes prevention and health enhancement.

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Meal Planning & Diets/Healthy Eating

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