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Publication #FSHN12-17

Functional Foods1

Amanda L. Ford and Wendy J. Dahl2

What are functional foods?

Currently, there is no universally accepted definition for a functional food in the United States. Instead, a functional food is commonly defined as a food that provides benefits beyond the basic nutrition provided by that food. The additional benefit is due to a component in the food item that offers physical or biological—i.e., functional—benefits.

Functional foods have become increasingly popular in the United States. Some foods naturally contain a functional component, or a functional ingredient can be added to a processed food to create a functional food. Functional foods may help reduce the risk of certain diseases or may increase overall health.

How are functional foods regulated?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the government agency that is responsible for regulating and ensuring the safety of food. As the FDA does not have a formal definition of a functional food, the rules regulating functional foods depend on how the manufacturer chooses to market the food product to the consumer (you).

Figure 1. 

Food label of unknown origin featuring various structure-function claims, together with fine-print disclaimer that reads, "This product is not intended to treat, cure or prevent any disease or ailment." / Credits: Kai Schreiber, CC BY-SA 2.0, http://flic.kr/p/88c3bq


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A manufacturer can market its product as a whole food, or as enriched food, fortified food, or enhanced food:

  • Enriched – the addition of one or more nutrients that was lost during food processing

  • Fortified – the addition of one or more nutrients into a food

  • Enhanced – the addition of one or more nutrients into a food by modification or indirect methods

Figure 2. 

Scrambled Omega-3 eggs with tomato / Credits: Renée Suen, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, http://flic.kr/p/73AGTa


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Claims Made for Functional Foods

The FDA is also responsible for monitoring the health claims that manufacturers make for their products. As a consumer, it is important to take notice of the claims that may be located on the packaging of functional foods. Most claims on functional food labels are considered structure-function claims. Structure-function claims are often placed on foods and are not highly regulated by the FDA. The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act states that a structure-function claim cannot be proven to be false or misleading to the consumer and cannot claim to treat, cure, or prevent a disease or disease condition. Some examples of structure-function claims are “Calcium builds strong bones”, “Vitamin D helps contribute to bone health”, and “Vitamin A may help to contribute to maintenance of healthy vision”.

Classification of Functional Foods

Functional foods can be divided into two broad categories. The first category consists of functional foods that naturally contain a component that offers additional benefits to the consumer. The other category of functional foods consists of processed foods in which a component is added to the food to give it additional benefits.

Foods with naturally-occurring functional components

Tomatoes, for example, are considered a functional food because they contain the bioactive component lycopene. Lycopene has been shown to promote prostate health. Table 1 lists some examples of functional foods along with the component that occurs naturally in the food item and its possible health benefits. Many of the foods in this category are commonly found in your grocer’s produce department.

Table 1. 

Foods with Functional Components

Functional Food

Functional Component

Potential Benefit

Tomatoes, Watermelon

Lycopene

Prostate health

Broccoli

Lutein

Reduced risk of macular degeneration

Citrus

Flavanones

Neutralizes free radicals,

reduced risk of some cancers

Soybeans

Isoflavones

Lowers LDL and total cholesterol

Cranberries

Proanthocyanidins

Improves urinary tract health

Fish oils

Omega-3 fatty acids

Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease

Insoluble fiber

Wheat bran

Reduced risk of breast and colon cancer

Foods with enhanced functional components

Omega-3 enriched eggs are considered a functional food because they contain the bioactive food ingredient omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are not added directly to the eggs. Instead the hens that lay these eggs are given a feed that contains large amounts of an ingredient (commonly flax seed) that is high in omega-3. In studies, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce risks associated with cardiovascular disease.

Foods with added functional ingredients

Table 2 lists functional foods along with the component that manufacturers have added and its possible benefits. The foods in this category are generally processed. Examples include orange juice with added vitamin D, breads and cereals with added fiber, and a wide variety of other food products.

Table 2. 

Foods with Added Functional Ingredients

Functional Food

Functional Ingredient

Potential Benefit

Orange juice with added vitamin D

Vitamin D

Reduced risk of bone diseases

Yogurt with probiotics

Probiotics

Improved health of gastrointestinal tract

Breads and cereals with added fiber

Fiber

Alleviates constipation and may reduce risk of certain cancers

Margarine fortified with plant sterols

Plant sterols and Phytosterols

Reduces cholesterol

Should we consume functional foods?

Functional foods can provide additional health benefits to you if you consume them regularly as part of a varied diet. As functional foods become increasingly popular in the U.S., it is important to be an informed shopper.

Figure 3. 

Orange juice (Credits: Tom & Katrien / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) Reliable nutrition information may be found online at: fda.govfycs.ifas.ufl.edueatright.orgnutrition.gov


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Footnotes

1.

This is document FSHN12-17, one in a series of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Published November 2012. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/.

2.

Amanda L. Ford, MS, graduate student, and Wendy J. Dahl, PhD, assistant professor; Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida; Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.