Functional foods (often called nutraceuticals) have grown in popularity in today’s more health-conscious world. In simple terms, these foods provide basic nutritional value and are packed with compounds that provide additional health benefits – probiotics, antioxidants and omega-3s are some well-known examples. Here we delve into the intriguing world of functional foods, exploring their potential health benefits, their crucial role in disease prevention and explain how they can be used to boost personal health and well-being.
What are functional foods and what do they do?
Typically when we’re talking functional foods, we are referring to natural plants that contain nutritionally rich bioactive compounds. High in antioxidants, dietary fibre, probiotics, prebiotics and more, these plants can provide significant medicinal and health benefits, principally the prevention, management or treatment of disease. As a result, functional foods have an important role in health assessment. By regulating biomarkers, such as blood pressure and inflammation, tracking changes in these biomarkers after incorporating nutraceuticals into our diet can inform decisions on what is needed to enhance an individual’s overall health. Other subsidiary benefits, such as increasing nutrient intake and ensuring proper growth and development in adolescence, are also significant.
Most functional foods are found as whole foods in our everyday diets – the likes of berries, fish, nuts and mushrooms – however, they have also been converted into supplement form. This has led to some confusion - the terms functional foods and nutraceuticals are used interchangeably, but confusingly they refer to slightly different things from country to country. In the UK and Canada, for example, there is a separation between the terms functional food and nutraceutical, the former referring specifically to foods, whereas the latter are products produced from foods but sold as pills or powders (in other words, as supplements). In the US, the terms are largely unregulated, so their use are determined by marketing teams looking to sell to consumers.
How do functional foods work?
Specific benefits from functional foods are diverse and extensive, but as mentioned, their most significant advantage is as protection against disease. They can enhance immune function, reduce inflammation, improve heart health, and even help protect against certain types of cancer – but how?
In short, due to their high antioxidant content, functional foods protect cells from damage by free radicals. Free radicals, unstable molecules which derive from the body’s metabolic processes or from external sources such as smoking, attack cells in our body to stabilise themselves, which damages them in a process known as oxidative stress. This damage is associated with the development of various chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, arthritis, stroke, respiratory diseases, neurodegenerative disorders and immune deficiency. However, the antioxidants in functional foods can neutralise these free radicals, stabilising them before they attack our cells and potentially lowering the risk of contracting these diseases.
But it’s not just disease prevention that functional foods are good for – it’s also health promotion. Probiotics, polysaccharides and zinc, found in foods such as yoghurt, mushrooms and nuts, are central to promoting our digestive health by stimulating a healthy gut microbiome, which can also improve insulin sensitivity for people with diabetes or obesity. The dietary fibre in functional foods can also help promote a healthy digestive system, reducing the risk of conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and colorectal cancer by regulating the use of sugars. These in turn also have an anti-inflammatory effect. Mushrooms in particular have been used increasingly as a supplement to help increase athletic performance, helping the body to adapt to physical stress, building stamina and endurance while reducing recovery times1.
Our top ten functional foods to incorporate into your lifestyle:
1. Berries: Packed with antioxidants and fibre, berries can help reduce inflammation and improve heart health.
2. Nuts and Seeds: Rich in healthy fats, fibre, and protein, nuts and seeds can support heart health and weight management.
3. Fish: Particularly fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are known for their heart health and brain benefits.
4. Whole Grains: They are rich in fibre and can help regulate blood sugar levels and promote digestive health.
5. Dark Chocolate: Contains flavonoids, caffeine, and theobromine, which can support heart health.
6. Green Tea: Known for its high polyphenol content, green tea can help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer.
7. Fermented Foods: Foods like yogurt and kimchi are rich in probiotics, promoting gut health.
8. Leafy Greens: High in fibre, antioxidants, and essential vitamins, leafy greens can support overall health.
9. Garlic: Known for its immune-boosting properties.
10. Turmeric: Contains curcumin, a compound with potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
How to use functional foods
The capacity of functional foods to boost health and prevent diseases is worth exploring, but it's essential to consult a healthcare provider first2. Consumed correctly, they can be used to target particular issues, evidenced by their effect on biomarkers, but finding what works for you is the crucial first step. Whole foods are preferable but fortified foods and supplements are also widely available, so it is important to choose high-quality products with well-researched strains with clinically proven benefits. Finally, it is important to note that functional foods are not a replacement for a healthy diet and lifestyle, but a method of enhancing it.
1. Hekate. (2022). ‘The Pressure to Perform as an Athlete and How Functional Mushrooms Can Help.’ Accessed from: https://hekate.com/blogs/functional-mushrooms-benefits-and-recipes/the-pressure-to-perform-as-an-athlete-and-how-functional-mushrooms-can-help#:~:text=Mushrooms%20help%20improve%20athletic%20performance%20by%20helping%20the%20body%20adapt,endurance%20while%20reducing%20recovery%20time.
2. Caballero, B., & Liu, R. H. (2012). ‘Functional foods: Health effects and clinical applications’. Journal of Functional Foods, Vol 4(1). p1-2.