Blog By: Aishwarya Ghumekar
The term “functional food” most commonly refers to any food with benefits beyond its nutritive value. A formal legal definition has not been adopted in the United States, so many organizations have proposed their own. The Institute of Food Technologists defines functional foods as those “foods and food components that provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition (for the intended population). These substances provide essential nutrients often beyond quantities necessary for normal maintenance, growth, and development, and/or other biologically active components that impart health benefits or desirable physiological effects.”
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) sees all foods as functional, at least on some level, given that every food contributes energy or nutrients to the diet in some capacity. In its 2009 position statement on functional foods, the association defines unmodified or “conventional” foods (eg, fruits, vegetables) as the most basic functional foods. These foods contain bioactive substances beneficial to health (eg, antioxidants, fibers, phytochemicals), and their consumption has benefits for disease prevention.
Modified foods are those that have been enhanced or fortified with a specific nutrient to market that food as having an additional health-related benefit. Over the past five years, modified foods have increased in popularity, gaining a larger percentage of the market. Calcium-, antioxidant-, vitamin-, and herb-fortified beverages; products containing prebiotics and probiotics; and products containing added plant stanols/sterols, fibers, and omega-3 fatty acids are examples of how foods are commonly modified to increase their nutritive value.
Scientific consensus exists for the vast number of health benefits that result when conventional functional foods are regularly included in the diet. Dietary guidance for the public is based on the incorporation of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and their disease-preventive effects are advocated by the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society in their advice to consumers. Less explored, and certainly more controversial, is the role that modified food products can play in the diet.