February 2022

What are Functional Foods?

The term “functional food” seems to come up regularly. But many people don’t really understand what that means, or which foods fit in that category. Here’s a brief breakdown.

A functional food is essentially a food that is rich in nutrients. The term was first created by the Japanese government in the 1980s to describe foods that contain nutrients that offer health benefits, or “functions,” beyond basic nutrition – such as helping to prevent disease.

In the US, despite an abundance of products labeled as “functional foods,” there is no strict definition, but the idea is essentially the same. Some foods are fortified with certain vitamins or minerals – these are called fortified foods and they fit in the functional food bucket. Cereals, milk, fruit juice, bread, yogurt and salt are all fortified with nutrients such as folic acidvitamin Dcalciumvitamin B12iodine and others. While it’s possible to obtain these nutrients naturally in some foods, fortifying common processed foods helps to ensure that the majority of the population consumes the required nutrients in a cost-effective way to help prevent deficiencies and disease. For example, folic acid fortification, which began in the US in 1998, resulted in a significant drop in neural tube defects in infants.   

But fortified foods aren’t the only functional foods. Berries, fish, nuts and whole grains are all examples of nutrient-rich functional foods. Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have known heart health benefits. Whole grains are rich in dietary fiber, which can help reduce cholesterol. Berries are rich in dietary fiber and vitamins, such as vitamin C, which offer a wide range of health benefits. The bottom line is, if you focus on eating healthy, whole foods, you’re eating functional foods.

Check out our charts to find out which foods are rich in fibervitamin B12folatemagnesium, potassium, and other nutrients.

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The information in this brief report is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions. Copyright © 2024 NatMed. Commercial distribution or reproduction prohibited. NatMed is the leading provider of high-quality, evidence-based, clinically-relevant information on natural medicine, dietary supplements, herbs, vitamins, minerals, functional foods, diets, complementary practices, CAM modalities, exercises and medical conditions. Monograph sections include interactions with herbs, drugs, foods and labs, contraindications, depletions, dosing, toxicology, adverse effects, pregnancy and lactation data, synonyms, safety and effectiveness.