Functional foods

We’ve all heard these words: “It helps your defences”, “It facilitates intestinal transit” or “It will help reduce your cholesterol levels”.

They describe the benefits of certain functional foods. This trend is quickly growing due, in part, to our current lifestyle. But, do you know if these foods are really functional?

In recent years, interest has grown with respect to diet and health. On the one hand, this is normal as, on a daily basis, research shows the benefits that many traditional foods have for the body.

You know that you need to follow a healthy, varied and balanced diet. Diet is an essential pillar for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. This does not mean that our current lifestyle has not led to certain healthy food habits being abandoned. We have not got enough time to cook. We love physical inactivity and have succumbed to the large variety of pre-cooked foods now available. This has all given rise to greater nutritional imbalance and deficit, associated with a large number of diseases. Remember that, in Spain, cardiovascular diseases are the main cause of death and the reason for many hospital admissions.

“Functional foods have emerged as a result of this fast lifestyle”.

A functional food is a food or ingredient which can have a beneficial effect on your health, apart from its traditional function.
They are natural foods, like fruits, vegetables, greens, oat, olive oil, fish, etc. which contain the beneficial properties themselves or whose properties can be modified.
In supermarkets you will find a wide variety of foods with one or more of their components modified:

  • Foods to which a component like Omega 3 or royal jelly has been added.
  • Foods in which a component has been replaced by another, for example: sugar by sweeteners (jams or light refreshments), fat by carbohydrates or proteins.
  • Foods from which a component has been removed: fat, gluten-free, salt-free foods, etc.
  • Foods which have an increased concentration of some component or other, like calcium and vitamin D-enriched milk, vitamin C-enriched juice or cereals with folic acid, etc.
  • Foods in which the bioavailability of a component is altered (the food is enriched and its bioavailability is improved), e.g.: yoghourts with plant sterols.

Alimentos funcionales, supermercado. Functional food, market

Who are they aimed at?

Functional foods can be part of anyone’s diet so we can all eat them. Having said that, they are, however, particularly suited to people with special nutritional needs, such as pregnant women and children, or those with deficiencies, allergies or food intolerance, groups at risk of specific diseases, like cardiovascular disease, gastroenteritis, osteoporosis, etc. and the elderly.

What conditions must a food comply with for it to be considered functional?

  • It must produce a beneficial physiological effect on your physical or mental state of health and/or reduce the risk of disease.
  • Beneficial properties for health which are scientifically proven.
  • The food component responsible for the physiological effects must be characterised by its physical and chemical properties, as well as identified and quantified by possible analytical methods.
  • The said compound must have been previously evaluated in human populations regarding its absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion and metabolism of action.
  • It must be effective in all members of the population (age, genetic constitution, etc.).
  • It must maintain the food’s own characteristics, that is, it cannot be sold as pills, capsules, tablets, powder, etc. It can be integrated into the individual’s usual diet.
  • The quantities required for the beneficial effects to be felt should be the usual ones in a normal diet pattern.

Alimentos funcionales, aceite de oliva virgen. Functional food, olive oil

Regulated foods

Their hygiene and safety conditions are regulated like any other food, and, in the event that they are enriched with any nutrient, as contemplated in Spanish and European law, said nutrient must be specified on the product’s nutritional label.

The same occurs with any beneficial claims of these foods. They must be scientifically proven, as required by the European Union, and regulated by the “Functional Food Science in Europe” (FUFOSE).

Approximately 200 types of functional foods are currently marketed in Spain. These are, for example, juices without added sugars which have vitamins and minerals, cereals with fibre, milk fortified with calcium or omega 3 and lots more.

What about you? Do you usually eat these functional foods? Which ones? Tell us how you are getting on!