Functional foods: Isn’t all food functional?

4 December, 2020

 Breaking down the hype about functional foods

If you’re into food and into health, you’ve no doubt heard the term ‘functional food’ used to describe a wide range of food products. And maybe, like us, you’ve scratched your head wondering just what is meant by functional foods. 

After all, isn’t all food functional? It has the function of keeping you fuelled and nourished, right?

Well, you’re kind of right, but more specifically, according to Mayo Clinic functional foods are considered foods that have “a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition.” This might be naturally occurring features, like oats containing beta-glucan fibre that can help lower cholesterol. Or it could be fortifying a food or drink with an added nutrient – like adding iodised salt to bread, folic acid to breakfast cereals, or adding vitamin D to milk to aid calcium absorption.

 So, are functional foods just marketing hype?

There’s definitely some justification for some functional foods. In the examples of foods fortified with iodine and folic acid referenced above, these provide a significant public health benefit. Folic acid plays an important role in healthy infant development, while iodine is essential for thyroid function and also prevents intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Some other functional foods though could definitely fall into the category of marketing hype. For example, in 2018 CSIRO researchers developed a broccoli powder and suggested ‘broccoli coffee’ as a way to get more nutrients into people. Yep, broccoli coffee. Basically, the idea was to add broccoli powder to a shot of espresso before adding steamed milk and sprinkling more of the powder on top. Two tablespoons of the powder would be equivalent to one serve of veggies, and would give a hit of a range of vitamins. 

Right now, you might be pulling a face at the idea of broccoli coffee. But turmeric, beetroot and blue algae lattes have been popular with health seekers, so we’ll reserve our judgement on broccoli coffee for the time being. Never say never!

Other examples of functional foods

There’s plenty of everyday foods that fall into the category of functional foods, as well as others that are more niche to meet a specific health need. Some of the functional foods that you might see on your supermarket shelves include:

  • Cholesterol-lowering margarine fortified with plant sterols
  • Yogurts and yoghurt drinks with additional probiotics and live culture bacteria
  • Fermented foods with a host of good bacteria to enhance gut health
  • Herbs and spices like turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and cayenne pepper are being used for a range of health reasons as well as tasting yum
  • Coffee, green tea and black tea (full of antioxidants – if you need an excuse for your caffeine hit!)
  • Fortified non-dairy milks, like almond, rice and coconut milks

Do you need to include fortified foods in your diet?

While we are not medical experts, from what we have seen the short answer is if you eat a balanced diet, probably not.

The longer answer is that it can be hard to get all your nutrients in, and this is even more the case if you have any kind of dietary restrictions. For many people, functional foods can play an important role in ticking all the nutritional boxes and enhancing health. Start with a base diet of nutrient-rich foods like fruits and veggies, whole grains, and high-quality animal products if you choose to eat them. Then use fortified functional foods to fill in the gaps if necessary.