Functional Foods – What does the term functional food mean?

Functional Foods - What does the term functional food mean
Food Science

Esteban Gutierrez La Torre

Doctoral candidate in Food Biofunctionality at University of Hohenheim

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The history of human beings has always been connected to food, as it provides us with energy and nutrients, vital elements for our growth. With the development of agriculture, i.e., the mastery of obtaining cultivated food from the same place without the need to search for it as nomads did, the human population grew exponentially. Thus, the development of agriculture solved the first problem of humans concerning obtaining food.

Current times are different. Having food easily accessible helped the world’s population increase. Also, life expectancy increased dramatically, which continues to grow even to this day. Thus, in 2015, the world average life expectancy was 71.4 years, and today, more than 30 countries exceed 80 years of life expectancy. 

Another evident change was the population transition from rural to urban areas. In cities, jobs demand less physical activity, and the pace of life is faster, leading to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Also, there is an increase in the consumption of fast food designed merely to satisfy their craving desire. These two factors have contributed to the rise of various non-communicable conditions, like hypercholesterolemia, dangerously high cholesterol concentrations in the blood, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer, like breast, liver, and colon cancer. So, with the development of civilization, new problems appeared.

To this, the population has expressed its concern. People want to live until old age, but with a good quality of life, without any diseases that might occur. They also want to avoid the high costs of invasive health treatments to cure such conditions. For this, food technologists, experts who develop new food products, decided to contribute with their knowledge to solve this situation. They know that specific components and ingredients in food have exciting health properties, so they developed a new type of food: functional foods.

Functional vs Conventional Foods

First, it is necessary to define a functional food and what differentiates it from conventional foods. Currently, many foods claim to have functional properties, but this is not the case at all. Let’s start with conventional foods, the ones we have always known: they contain components such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, which serve the vital function of providing us the energy to carry out all our daily activities. They are necessary, compulsory, for our existence. Without these nutrients, we could not live.

On the other hand, functional foods have something extra when consumed at normal levels, i.e., as part of a balanced diet. In the amounts we would consume any other similar food, they provide positive effects on our physical and mental health. They can prevent the development of certain health disorders. This definition of functional foods is the most concise that has been found in the literature, as there is currently no standardized worldwide definition.

The development of functional foods is challenging for food technologists for several reasons. Firstly, although there is no standardized definition, their regulation depends on each country or group of countries. For example, in the European Union, for food to be considered functional, that must be validated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency validate functional food for the United States and Brazil. These entities validate the clinical and human studies that prove that specific components of these foods, when consumed regularly and in usual amounts, can prevent a particular condition or positively affect health. For this purpose, experts must do more than in vitro or animal studies. They must carry out studies on humans in compliance with all ethical codes. Therefore, a food company that wishes to claim that its food is functional must invest an enormous budget in research.

Another problem in developing such functional foods is that functional compounds are generally poorly absorbed by the organism. Therefore, food technologists are looking for innovative techniques to increase the bioavailability of these compounds. Such techniques are microencapsulation, emulsion, or micellarisation.

Do Functional Foods Cure Diseases?

It is also worth mentioning the limits of functional foods: they are not medicines, i.e., they do not cure diseases. Their mode of action lies in preventing conditions that can lead to disease. Therefore, they do not need to be prescribed by doctors and are freely available to consumers. It is also worth clarifying the mentioned above: “the amounts we would consume any other similar food,” which means that if, for example, a yogurt claims to have functional properties related to lowering blood cholesterol, this effect should be noticeable when consuming the same amount of yogurt that we would regularly consume, not having to eat 15 kg of yogurt a day for this beneficial effect to be noticeable. Also, functional foods are not miraculous. Human genetics play a fundamental role in developing adverse health conditions. Consuming functional foods can only contribute partially to lowering the risk of such diseases, as it is only one of the many prevention factors. Consumers must integrate functional foods into a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, adequate sleep, avoidance of stress, and avoidance of smoking and alcohol.

Finally, functional foods owe their properties to compounds present naturally or added during processing, which will benefit our health in specific systems, such as the digestive or cardiovascular. Examples are prebiotics, probiotics, polyunsaturated fatty acids, dietary fiber, and antioxidants (we will discuss them in future articles).

And with that, welcome to the functional foods section of Wikifarmer! Thanks for reading!

References:

  • Bigliardi, Barbara; Galati, Francesco (2013). Innovation trends in the food industry: The case of functional foods. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 31(2), 118–129. doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2013.03.006 
  • Granato, D.; Barba, F.; Bursac, D.; Lorenzo, J.; Cruz, A.; Putnik, P. (2020). Functional foods: product development, technological trends, efficacy testing and safety. Annual Review of Food Science and Technology, 11(3), 3-26. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-food-032519-051708 
  • Wildman, R.; Bruno, R. (2019). Handbook of nutraceuticals and functional foods. Third edition. CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group.

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