Published On: Tue, Feb 27th, 2018

What are Functional Foods, Designer Foods

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Before the 1900s, people always obtained their nutritional requirements from foods provided by nature. After the advent of technological changes, the discovery that “fortified” foods can contribute to enhanced public health (governments approved research and developments in view of healthcare savings), and increased public awareness about self-care and enhanced quality of life, the addition of nutrients and phytochemicals in foods became prevalent. Some of these early food fortifications included adding iodine to salt to prevent goiter, folic acid to grain products to prevent neural tube defect in babies, vitamin A in margarine to prevent xeropthalmia, and other efforts. Note: Processed foods in the United States do not use iodized salt.

What are Functional Foods, Designer Foods

Functional Foods vs. Nutraceuticals

Functional foods are novel foods to which specific physiologically active compounds have been added. They are conceived to be foods intended to be consumed as part of a normal diet, and contains biologically active compounds which offer potentially enhanced health or reduced risk of diseases. Examples of functional foods include margarine with added plant sterols (to lower LDL cholesterol), yogurt with probiotics(to boost immune system function), eggs from hens fed flax seeds (to increase their omega-3 fatty acid content), noodles with added vitamin A from winter squash (to add betacarotene), and other notable products.

By comparison, nutraceuticals are health promoting compounds or products that have been isolated or purified from food. They are often referred to as dietary supplements. They too contain biologically active compounds that provide health benefits. Examples include fish oil capsules, lutein-containing multivitamin pills, alpha-lipoic acid pills, etc. Nutraceuticals are often sold in “pill” or “capsule” form.

Regulation of Health Claims Found on Functional Foods

In Canada, the Food Directorate – an agency of the Health Products and Food Branch, Canadian Food Inspection Agency – regulates functional foods, while the National Health Products Directorate regulates the nutraceuticals and other natural health products.

In the United States, It is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FDA regulates product safety, claims on labelling including packaging, inserts, and other promotional materials distributed to the point of sales. It also regulates laws preventing “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” and ensures that consumers get accurate information about dietary supplements, and regulates the dietary supplement industry. In contrast, the FTC is responsible for claims on advertising including print and broadcast ads, infomercials, catalogues, and other similar direct marketing materials.

In the European Union, there is no harmonized legislation in health claims. They are dealt with at the national level. European labelling legislation prohibits attributing to any foodstuffs the property of preventing, treating, or curing a human disease or referring to such properties. EU member states apply for different interpretations of the existing labelling legislation. At the same time, there is an agreement that “health claims must be properly substantiated to protect the consumer, and to promote fair trade and encourage research and innovation in the food industry.” These initiatives are taking place in Sweden, the UK, and other leading EU member states.

In Japan, the Ministry of Health and Welfare identifies and regulates the sale of functional foods after comprehensive science, evidence based proof are submitted to support the health claims. It has been in effect since 1991.

Unanswered Questions

Given the growth of this business entreprise, we have to ask ourselves if we really need functional foods in our daily diet. The questions below may provide some answers.

-Does the product work? Scientific evidence is generally sparse and findings inconclusive.
-How much of the active ingredient(s) does it contain? Food labels are not obliged to list the quantities of added nutrients/phytochemicals. Consumers have no reference point for comparison, and cannot understand if the amount listed is sufficient or not.
-Is it safe? Functional foods can work like drugs. These added substances can alter body functions. When eaten in large portions, they may cause food-drug interactions, allergies, and other side effects. Unlike drugs that come with warnings and instructions (monograph), food labels do not carry these warnings.
-Is it healthy? A candy bar may be fortified with flavonoids, but it is still a candy bar rich in sugar and fat.

Because researchers are still unable to identify the perfect combinations of nutrients (and plant chemicals) needed to support optimum human health, it may be more prudent to obtain nutrients and phytochemicals from nature.

About the Author

- Paul Linus is an eminent online journalist who has been writing news, features and editorials on different websites from across the world for about a decade. He can be contacted at

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