Functional Foods: A New Frontier

Tina Ruggiero
Eggs are an example of a functional foods.

Hippocrates was right. More than 2500 years ago, the father of modern medicine said, “Let food be your medicine, and let medicine be your food.” Today science supports the notion that food components provide protective and therapeutic benefits, thus giving rise to the term functional foods.

Last week, I attended a forum in Washington D.C. hosted by the Food & Drug Law Institute, and food law and regulation was the sole topic for two days.

The potential regulation of functional foods – currently a $25 billion market — was discussed, so I thought I’d devote this log to the functional diet, in an attempt to provide a basis for understanding, once rules and recommendations begin to grab headlines.

Functional foods, also called designer foods or neutraceuticals, are created to help maintain or improve health and lower disease risk. Functional ingredients are incredibly complex (Take it from a gal who’s a Registered Dietitian with a biochemistry background.), so I’ve decided to share just a very basic overview of key functional ingredients, their potential benefits, and sources. Consider this Functional Foods 1.0.

PROBIOTICS: Otherwise known as healthy bacteria, these little guys play a significant role in overall wellness. They maintain a healthy digestive system and improve immunity and some studies have shown probiotics have the ability to combat harmful bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella. Probiotics are found in yogurt, buttermilk, and fermented cheeses.

OMEGA 3 FATTY ACIDS: Just like Omega 6 fatty acids, Omega 3s can’t be produced by the body, so we need to get these essential nutrients from food. Omega 3s play a role in reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes and they can be found in walnuts, Canola oil, and fish including tuna, salmon, halibut, and shrimp.

OMEGA 6 FATTY ACIDS: This essential fatty acid has been shown to lower cholesterol and sources include wheat germ (great sprinkled on cereal) corn, sunflower and sesame oils.

VITAMIN E & SELENIUM: Both of these functional components are powerful antioxidants. They protect the body from cell damage and environmental carcinogens. Eggs, whole wheat, nuts, and sweet potatoes are sources of vitamin E, and selenium can be found in shellfish, chicken, beef, lamb, and carrots.

LYCOPENE: Lycopene is an antioxidant, and studies have shown including lycopene-rich foods in your diet may help reduce the risk of prostate and breast cancer, macular degeneration, and cardiovascular disease and reduce the severity of allergy symptoms. Tomatoes, red bell peppers, pink grapefruit, and apricots are all good sources.

ECGC: Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is a catechin; a phytochemical compound that is found predominantly in green tea. Smaller amounts of catechins are also in black tea, grapes, wine and chocolate. EGCG has powerful antioxidant properties and also has been shown to have cholesterol-lowering abilities.

PHYTOSTEROLS: These functional components are found in plants and have cholesterol-lowering properties. In addition, they may protect against breast prostate, and colon cancer. Sources include fortified margarine (i.e., Benecol), olive oil, almonds, kidney beans, and soybeans.

Certainly, there is MUCH more to functional foods than the above; however, modifying your diet even slightly to include functional foods is a step toward disease prevention and improved overall health.

I’d be interested to hear how many of you have adjusted your diet to include functional foods. Tips, just like questions, are always welcome!

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