A beginner's guide to functional foods

What are functional foods and why they are good for you

Functional foods are foods or food ingredients that may have health benefits in addition to providing protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals. There's a growing amount of good food such as probiotics and margarines which claim to have health benefits to some extent or other.

Functional foods may 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.

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.

functional foods fish

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 as a nation we 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.

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