Functional foods tend to have a scientific allure about them and are heavily featured in marketing campaigns. However, the reality is that many ordinary ingredients (especially whole plant foods) are actually functional foods because they are linked with tangible health benefits, like healthier cholesterol, or lower rates of disease.

“All foods are functional to some extent because all foods provide taste, aroma and nutritive value,” suggests Dr. Clare Hasler, former founding director of the Functional Foods for Health program. However, generally speaking, functional foods are foods that have health benefits beyond the nutrients they contain.

Oatmeal flavored with apricot and tahini
Apricot and Tahini Steel Cut Oats with Cinnamon

Some examples include:

  • The protein in soy foods (like tofu), which is linked with lower LDL (“bad”) and total cholesterol.
  • The beta-glucan soluble fibers in oats and barley, which are linked with lower LDL and total cholesterol.
  • The insoluble fiber in whole wheat, which is linked with lower risks of heart disease and colorectal cancer.
  • The omega-3 fatty acids in fish, which are linked with lower risks of heart disease.
  • Fruits and vegetables, whose antioxidants are thought to be protective against cancer.
  • Fermented foods (like yogurt or kimchi), whose probiotics are thought to nurture a healthy digestive tract.

In the United States, the FDA allows the use of health claims on certain foods, like oats and barley, though there is no universally accepted definition of functional foods. Hippocrates sung the praises of food as medicine in the 4th and 5th century BCE, but the recent history of functional foods did not begin to pick up steam until the 1980’s, in Japan. To help alleviate healthcare costs of an aging population, Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare began approving certain foods with documented health benefits that could bear a special seal, granting them status as FOSHU (Foods for Specified Health Use). Japan has since added a less-stringent option for manufacturers under the newer FFC (Foods with Function Claims) program

Today, the term “functional food” is often used as a marketing ploy to sell expensive fortified products. But functional foods need not be created in a lab. In fact, you probably already have a few in your refrigerator. If you’re looking to include more functional foods in your diet, our recipes are a great place to start:

Mediterranean Spicy Salmon Banner
Spicy Salmon

Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN, Director of Nutrition

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