The term “functional food” has become increasingly popular in both scientific literature and in the marketing of foods. Generally, these functional foods are recognized as something desirable; but what is a “functional food?”

The simple answer is that there is no officially recognized definition of “functional food.” The FDA does not feel it necessary to distinguish between a “functional food” and other foods since foods can be labeled with health claims, provided the claims conform to FDA regulations. Several other organizations have attempted to define “functional food,” including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; European Commission; Health Canada; and Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, but no consensus has been reached. Overall, the organizations appear to agree that a functional food:

  • Is a whole, unprocessed food – not found in pill, powder, or other supplement form.
  • Provides a health benefit beyond the basic nutritional functions of food.
  • The health benefit is seen when consumed at normal levels, as part of a varied diet.
  • Can be a whole food fortified with nutrients, such as eggs with added omega-3.

With the growing popularity of “functional foods” and movements like Food as Medicine, it’s apparent that many are looking to harness the power of the foods they eat to increase health and vitality. Studies have begun to isolate numerous compounds in the foods that may provide health-promoting properties beyond essential vitamins and minerals. Classes of nutrients that are thought to promote health include, but are not limited to:

  • Fatty acids like DHA, EPA, ALA, and CLA
  • Starches and fibers like fructooligosaccharides and beta glucan
  • Proteins and amino acids
  • Carotenes like beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene
  • Flavonoids like anthocyanins, flavonols, flavonones, and proanthocyanidins
  • Isothiocyanates
  • Phenolic Acids
  • Plant Stanols and Sterols
  • Probiotics
  • Isoflavones
  • Sulfides and Thiols

While many of these “functional food” components may not be as easy to remember or say as vitamin C or zinc, they will likely play important roles in optimizing your health and well-being. Be sure to keep these in mind as you seek out specific “functional foods” that may provide a desired health benefit. 

By Ron Beckstrom MS, RD, HFS
Nutrition Specialist

This article is for nutrition information purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any health concerns you may have. The information in this article is not intended to promote any specific product, or for the prevention or treatment of any disease.