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WHAT THE HELL ARE FUNCTIONAL FOODS?


The primary role of diet is to provide sufficient nutrients to meet the nutritional requirements of an individual. There is now increasing scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that some foods and food components have beneficial physiological and psychological effects over and above the provision of the basic nutrients. Today, nutrition science has moved on from the classical concepts of avoiding nutrient deficiencies and basic nutritional adequacy to the concept of "positive" or "optimal" nutrition. The research focus has shifted more to the identification of biologically active components in foods that have the potential to optimise physical and mental well being and which may also reduce the risk of disease. Many traditional food products including fruits, vegetables, soya, whole grains and milk have been found to contain components with potential health benefits. In addition to these foods, new foods are being developed to enhance or incorporate these beneficial components for their health benefits or desirable physiological effects.


What are functional foods?



The concept of functional foods was born in Japan. In the 1980's, health authorities in Japan recognized that an improved quality of life must accompany increasing life expectancy for the expanding number of elderly people in the population if health care costs were to be controlled. The concept of foods that were developed specifically to promote health or reduce the risk of disease was introduced.


Functional foods have not as yet been defined by legislation in Europe. Generally, they are considered as those foods which are intended to be consumed as part of the normal diet and that contain biologically active components which offer the potential of enhanced health or reduced risk of disease.


Examples of functional foods include foods that contain specific minerals, vitamins, fatty acids or dietary fibre, foods with added biologically active substances such as phytochemicals or other antioxidants and probiotics that have live beneficial cultures.


As interest in this category of foods has grown, new products have appeared and interest has turned to the development of standards and guidelines for the development and promotion of such foods.


Why do we need functional foods?



Consumer interest in the relationship between diet and health has increased substantially in Europe. There is much greater recognition today that people can help themselves and their families to reduce the risk of illness and disease and to maintain their state of health and well being through a healthy lifestyle, including the diet.


Ongoing support for the important role of foods such as fruits and vegetables and wholegrain cereals in disease prevention and the latest research on dietary antioxidants and combinations of protective substances in plants has helped to provide the impetus for further developments in the functional food market in Europe.


Trends in population demographics and socio-economic changes also point to the need for foods with added health benefits. An increase in life expectancy, resulting in an increase in the number of elderly and the desire for an improved quality of life, as well as increasing costs of health care, have stimulated governments, researchers, health professionals and the food industry to see how these changes can be managed more effectively.


There is already a wide range of foods available to today's consumer but now the impetus is to identify those functional foods that have the potential to improve health and well-being, reduce the risk from, or delay the onset of, major diseases such as cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer and osteoporosis. Combined with a healthy lifestyle, functional foods can make a positive contribution to health and well being.


Conclusion



Functional foods offer great potential to improve health and/or help prevent certain diseases when taken as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. The subject of health claims is becoming increasingly important and there is broad consensus that there needs to be a regulatory framework in the EU that will protect consumers, promote fair trade and encourage product innovation in the food industry. The research opportunities in nutrition to explore the relationship between a food or a food component and an improved state of health and well-being, or reduction of disease, present the greatest challenge to scientists now and in the future. The communication of health benefits to consumers is also of critical importance so that they have the knowledge to make informed choices about the foods they eat and enjoy.

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