As the popularity of health-promoting diets grows, the topic of functional foods is attracting plenty of attention in the global food industry.
And there’s good reason for the hype.
Functional foods do more than simply meet nutritional needs, they have a tremendous impact on human health. In many cases their bioactive make-up can help ward off chronic diseases and other health risks.
But, can these foods be qualified medicine? And, what makes food ‘functional’ in the first place?
Let’s take a closer look at this prominent health topic.
Put simply, functional foods provide health benefits that extend beyond their initial nutritional value. Thanks to their often complex components, which can be both naturally occurring or modified, the physiological reach of functional foods extends to fortifying the body against health risks and enhancing overall well-being.
Functional foods are often conventional, whereby they are consumed in their original form. The likes of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains fall into this category. Yet, food can also be tinkered with to enhance its health-boosting prowess, which occurs when certain nutrients or other bioactive boosters are added to an original food source. Foods with probiotics often serve as examples of modified or enhanced functional foods.
Fruits and vegetables commonly earn the functional tag thanks to their rich antioxidant, vitamin and phytochemical content, which as well as reducing the risk of certain cancers helps improve cardiovascular health and boosts immunity, among other health benefits. As an example, beetroot is classified as functional food thanks to its assortment of nutritious components, including naturally occurring nitrates that convert into nitric oxide and help lower blood pressure.
Tart cherries, too, are among the highest antioxidant foods available and help fight inflammation, lower the risk of diabetes and assist with supporting joints. As well as other fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, grapes, citrus fruits and broccoli, functional foods also derived from plants include oats, soybeans, nuts and flaxseeds, all of which contain a plethora of health-enhancing benefits.
Functional foods can also be reinforced through the addition of specific ingredients. Here, functional components such as vitamins and minerals are combined with an existing food in order to bolster its impact on overall health, or help tackle a specific physiological issue. Examples include teas infused with herbs, grains and juices bolstered with added fiber and non-dairy yogurts with probiotics.
There’s little doubt that food has a bigger role to play than simply meeting the body’s energy and nutritional demands. As the aforementioned examples highlight, food can indeed be functionalized to deliver specific benefits to overall health.
Yet, while doctors agree that sustenance can assist in dealing with issues such as high blood pressure, they underscore that functional foods cannot act a remedy in themselves. In other words, food is not a magic potion that cures all, and should not be treated as such.
The true impact of functional foods will only be realized if it their consumption is combined with a good overall diet and plenty of exercise. Additionally, if illness and disease do strike, these foods can be part of an overall strategy that incorporates medication, physical rehabilitation and a good overall diet. Functional foods undoubtedly promote better health, but only when they are integrated with other healthy habits.
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