Functional foods are foods that have potentially positive health effects beyond the basic nutritional benefits they provide. Functional foods help promote optimal health and can play a role in reducing the risk of disease.

There's a growing amount of food such as probiotics and margarines which claim to have health benefits to some extent. Other foods, such as oatmeal can be be naturally functional in that it contains beta-glucan which can help reduce cholesterol levels

Functional foods, while they may naturally provide providing protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals, may also contain:  

  • New combinations or amounts of traditional nutrients.
  • New substances that are not generally known as nutrients.
  • A combination of the above.  

Examples of functional foods include:  

  • Probiotics containing live beneficial bacteria such as Yakult or Actimel.
  • Margarines containing plant sterols such as Benecol and Flora Proactiv.

Health benefits of functional foods

Some of the health benefits of functional foods include:

Improved gut health - commonly from dairy products which may include a variety of probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics.

Bone health - from products fortified with calcium, such as yoghurts, milk and juice.

Heart health - from products including soya, omega-3 fatty acids and phytostanols and phytosterols which have cholesterol-lowering ability.

Immune system health -  includes foods fortified with vitamins and probiotics, such as probiotics milk or yoghurt.  

Understanding functional food claims

The number of functional foods available has grown considerably in recent times. Advocates of functional foods argue that they have the ability to promote health and prevent disease whilst others feel that they may encourage people to eat a limited number of ‘super foods’ to meet their nutritional needs rather than eating a balanced diet.  

To help you understand the claims that are made on labels, remember that the claim should describe a well-established and generally accepted role in the body. For example, ‘calcium aids the development of strong bones and teeth’.

Many claims on foods make reference to general, non-specific benefits to general wellbeing such as ‘helps support your body’s natural defenses’ or ‘boosts your immune system’; these claims are often vague and sometimes meaningless and the Food Standards Agency is recommending that they should not be allowed.

Any claim that you see on a food label is cause for thought; does it sound like it could be factual? Always remember the principles of healthy eating and the need for balance in the diet. A national dietary survey has shown that in general people should be eating more fish (in particular oily fish), cereal-based products (bread, rice, oats, pasta etc), fruits and vegetables.

There are some very clever marketing techniques used to improve the image of certain foods. Remember, there are no 'good' or 'bad' foods, only 'good' and 'bad' diets.