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Generally defined as a food with health enhancing properties that go beyond basic nutrition, functional foods are the health superstars of the food industry.

Generally defined as a food with health enhancing properties that go beyond basic nutrition, functional foods are the superstars of the food industry–fighting disease and protecting human health. Functional food encompasses both whole foods such as antioxidant-rich blueberries and eggs fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, and processed foods such as pasta fortified with folic acid.

Recognizing the role diet plays in overall health, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada says that functional foods not only have the power to improve the well-being of Canadians, but may also help to reduce health care costs and to support economic development in rural communities.

With their many benefits, it’s no wonder that consumer demand for these foods is increasing. But, as more and more functional foods appear on grocery store shelves, with the promise to do everything from lowering cholesterol levels to warding off cancer, it’s becoming harder for consumers to decipher reality from hype.

Nutrient boosters
Registered dietician Sue Mah agrees that functional foods present an excellent opportunity for consumers to get important nutrients into their diet.

She believes most people could benefit from functional foods such as orange juice with added calcium and vitamin D and milk with DHA (a type of omega-3 fatty acid that is essential for the healthy development of the brain, eyes, and nerves).

How much a person will benefit really depends on their diet and their individual nutritional needs, says registered dietician Jessica Begg. She explains that while calcium enriched orange juice may be beneficial to someone who does not already eat a lot of calcium-rich foods, yogourt with added fibre is probably not of much benefit to a person who regularly eats a fibre-rich diet.

To be sure you are choosing the right foods to meet your needs, Begg suggests getting help from a registered dietician or health care professional to pinpoint what nutrients and vitamins are specifically important to you.

Check the label
While there is no doubt that functional foods can provide great health benefits, consumers must be cautious to make sure they are really getting what they pay for.

Labelling can be misleading or exaggerated, alluding to health benefits that the product doesn’t necessarily provide (for example, touting soluble fibre’s ability to lower cholesterol, but neglecting to mention that this type of fibre has not been added to the product).

To ensure you know what you are getting it’s important to always read packaging and nutritional facts carefully, examining what health benefits the food product claims
to provide.

One product in particular that consumers should pay close attention to is yogourt containing probiotic bacteria.

In order for probiotic bacteria to be effective it needs to be alive and active in the end product. But as there are currently no regulations for the labelling of probiotics, there is no guarantee that the specific strains of bacteria added to yogourt will actually stay alive and active when the product gets shipped to the store and finally gets to your home.

Before buying yogourt containing probiotic bacteria, consumers should call the manufacturer to ask for scientific proof that their product actually contains live, active bacteria.

As not all functional foods are created equal, registered dietician Brenda Arychuk says consumers also need to pay attention to the source and the amount of ingredients added to a product to ensure it will meet their needs.

In the case of omega-3s, some omega-3 enhanced foods are fortified with flax, which does not contain the same high amounts of this heart-healthy fatty acid as fish oil. If you’re eating foods fortified with flax in the hopes of preventing a heart attack, Arychuk says it may not give you enough of the bioactive compound needed to do so.

New innovations
While milk fortified with vitamin D and salt containing the micronutrient iodine have been around for decades, Arychuk cautions that many of the functional foods on the market today are relatively new and as such, not enough is known about their safety or effectiveness.

In the United States and Europe, phytosterols—a natural plant compound shown to lower cholesterol levels—have been added to margarine, but it is not yet known what effect this product will have when consumed by a person who is already taking cholesterol lowering drugs.

As we learn more about the effects certain foods have on our health, conventional wisdom is also changing. With all the functional food choices on the market, it is easy for consumers to become overwhelmed or preoccupied with adding a single nutrient to their diet, but as with any food it’s always easy to get too much of a good thing.

For optimal health, consumers should remember the big picture and focus on the whole diet by eating a wide variety of foods from each of the food groups every day.

Healthy Choices

Functional food Functional benefit
Milk and yogourt with probiotics Probiotics improve digestive health and enhance immune system.
Milk and yogourt with DHA This specific omega-3 fatty acid helps support development of the brain, nervous system,
and retinas of the eyes.
Beverages, bars, and cereals with green tea A rich source of antioxidants, green tea may reduce the risk for cancer and osteoporosis.
Oat bran with extra beta glucan Naturally occurring beta glucan, increased during the production stage, is an important source of fibre.
Eggs, cereals, and breads with omega-3 fatty acids from flax Omega-3 is enhanced in these products to improve metabolic functions.
Smoothies, juice, yogourt, and ice cream with acai berries or goji berries Both acai and goji are potent antioxidants that fight free radicals in the bloodstream.
Tomatoes Lycopene found in tomatoes provides support against free radicals. Heating and processing tomatoes produces higher levels of this naturally occurring antioxidant with tomato paste containing up to four times more lycopene than a fresh tomato.
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