The phrase "functional food" is everywhere these days, but what does it mean? From a natural health perspective, functional food refers to nutritionally superior food products that have been enhanced through processing, fermentation, or growth technologies.
The phrase “functional food” is everywhere these days, but what does it mean? From a natural health perspective, functional food refers to nutritionally superior food products that have been enhanced through processing, fermentation, or growth technologies.
The evolution of functional foods is supported by three principles: (1) food is medicine, (2) our goal is to preserve food quality, and (3) we have the ability to increase nutrient value or function. Although the reasons for the development of functional foods have changed over time, their origins are, in fact, quite ancient.
Early examples of functional foods include fermented foods such as tempeh, yogourt, kefir, and sauerkraut; dried or preserved foods such as pemmican and dried fish and meat; and cheese and sprouts. Improved digestion, preservation, and portability were the goals of early attempts at functional foods.
Today functional foods have evolved with the development of many new products that offer substantial health benefits. Our bodies are better adapted to foods than pharmaceuticals, so functional foods have few side effects yet hold great potential for secondary benefits. For example, fermented milk products such as yogourt break down lactose, making it easier for us to digest; at the same time providing a secondary benefit by supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Let’s look at the evolution of some of the most widely known functional foods: green products, protein powders, fibre products, and essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Greens are nutrition-packed complex foods based on cereal grass concentrates, particularly barley grass. It was Dr. Yoshihide Hagiwara, a chemist suffering from advanced and, what was thought to be, incurable chemical and heavy metals poisoning, who discovered in 1970 that a simple food extract–cold-processed barley juice powder–could neutralize and detoxify pesticides and heavy metals. Decades of research carried out by Dr. Hagiwara and others in Japan and the United States have confirmed these benefits.
Protein supplements are often associated with body builders, which is reasonable since these functional foods originated in the 1950s and 1960s as body-building products. They were of varying quality, were mixed poorly, and usually didn’t taste very good. In the 1990s, the advent of whey protein coincided with two evolving trends: fitness and demand for quick and nutritious meal replacement products. Whey protein’s superior amino acid profile, taste, and mixing characteristics met both requirements handily and an industry was born.
Today other types of functional food protein are also available: organic fermented whole soybean, hemp, peas, rice, milk casein, and egg albumin. Watch for developments around these functional foods.
Many of us know the digestive benefits of fibre and, in particular, the cholesterol-lowering effects of soluble fibres such as oat or rice bran–but it’s hard to eat enough of the stuff. A water-soluble fibre blend of three sources of fibre, most of which comes from a Japanese root called konjac mannan or glucomannan, was studied in clinical trials conducted by Dr. Vladimir Vuksan at the University of Toronto and published in Diabetes Care in 2000. Studies showed the hypersoluble fibre to be several times more efficient than wheat bran fibre in decreasing serum cholesterol but were also found to control blood sugar levels. Things have come a long way from psyllium and bran.
Another source of fibre–oat bran–has been shown to lower cholesterol. Isolation of oat beta glucan, the fibre responsible for the cholesterol-lowering effects, has netted similar benefits, as reported in 1999 by Bell and associates in Critical Review of Food Science Nutrition.
A decade ago proponents of EFAs were deemed quacks; now they are visionaries. None other than the highly conservative American Heart Association (americanheart.org) has endorsed the use of EFAs, citing the following benefits:
- Decreased risk of arrhythmias which can lead to sudden cardiac death
- Decreased triglyceride levels
- Decreased growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque
- Slightly lowered blood pressure.
The benefits of omega-3 and related products are summarized in numerous studies and go beyond the cardiovascular system. Dr. Udo Erasmus, author of Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill (alive Books, 1993), one of the earlier and more comprehensive studies of essential fatty acids, now provides excellent discussions and updated research at udoerasmus.com.
Functional foods have come a long way. Learn more about them and benefit.