More than ever, people are getting the message that food can improve health, and research continues to show that nutrition plays a crucial role in the prevention of disease, especially chronic disease. And if you’ve been paying attention to that message, chances are you’ve heard the word “functional” tossed about. We have functional exercise and functional medicine. Then there’s the phrase “functional foods.” It’s a tad medicinal sounding, but we’ll bite: What is a functional food? It sounds important to anyone trying to live a healthful life. We want to function, don’t we?
The answer is a bit complicated. Just as there are no federal regulations or rules governing the word “natural,” no legal definition exists for functional foods in the United States.
Mind & Body: The Future
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According to the Mayo Clinic, functional foods are generally considered to offer benefits that go beyond basic nutrition. Such foods may be, the National Institutes of Health states, “a source of mental and physical well-being, contributing to the prevention and reduction of … diseases or enhancing certain physiological functions.”
Oatmeal is a familiar example of a conventional functional food because it contains soluble fiber that can help lower cholesterol levels. Some foods and beverages are modified to enhance their positive effects (think orange juice fortified with calcium and vitamin D); some are formulated to be “free from” ingredients such as gluten; still others are made for certain health conditions.
Clinical nutritionist and functional doctor (yes, there are lots of them) Michael Wald places functional foods in four categories:
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• Conventional foods, including fruits, grains, vegetables and nuts. “Whole, natural foods, such as fruits and grains, are good for most people,” Wald said. “But if you suffer from allergies or intolerance, such as to gluten in some whole grains, they can be harmful.”
• Modified foods, including fortified cereals, yogurt and orange juice. Read labels and choose carefully. Yogurt, for instance, can have probiotics and active cultures, but it’s often also filled with sugar and artificial flavors and colors. And you might need to eat much more than a serving of a food to get the beneficial amount of the ingredient you’re seeking.