Should you buy into super foods — products with added vitamins, herbs and extracts? Here’s what you need to know :
The link between diet and health continues to grow, and researchers have begun looking at benefits that certain foods may provide beyond their basic nutritional value. Recent years have seen a growing interest in functional foods — foods that have specific components, naturally occurring or added, that may reduce the risk of certain diseases. Whole as well as fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods can fall into this category.
Unmodified whole foods such as fruits and vegetables are the simplest example of a functional food. For example, broccoli, carrots, or tomatoes may be considered functional foods because they are particularly rich in compounds that have been linked with reduced risk of various diseases. Modified foods, including those fortified with nutrients or enhanced with specific phytochemicals or botanical extracts, are also functional foods. There is hope that these can play a role in prevention and treatment of conditions like cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, and others.
The functional-food market is one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. food industry, and is also growing rapidly in Japan and England. In other countries, such as Canada, growth is slower because of current regulatory constraints.
Some types of fortified functional foods have been around for a long time. For example, we fortify milk and margarine with vitamin D to prevent vitamin D deficiency diseases such as rickets. We add iodine to salt to prevent goiter. But the recent explosion of research into the role of food and nutrients and disease has resulted in huge interest by food companies to develop and market foods as medicine. For example, in the United States, products like cereal with added psyllium to lower cholesterol and tea with St. John’s wort for mood improvement are now found on store shelves. Since these products are not regulated, a consumer has no way of knowing how much of the supposed “active ingredient” they contain. Herbal medicine experts decry the addition of herbs to products such as soft drinks and snacks as an attempt to exploit people’s growing interest in alternative medicine. These products are not available in Canada.
There are many areas of controversy surrounding functional foods. Some believe that they will distract people from eating healthy diets. Some blast manufacturers for making health claims for which, in many cases, there is little or no scientific support. Others believe that there is plenty of evidence to show that certain functional foods could be the answer to reducing the prevalence of chronic disease and the cost of treatment. Regardless of the controversy, strong consumer interest in functional foods will most likely drive continued development of this market.
Here is a list of some food components that are the focus of current research:
1.Omega-3 fatty acids. These have been linked to the treatment and prevention of a large variety of diseases, including heart disease and stroke, lupus, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, and breast, colon, and prostate cancer. Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish, fish oils, and flaxseed. Some eggs now contain omega-3 fatty acids.
2.Soy protein : Research supports soy protein’s role in the reduction of blood cholesterol levels. It remains unknown whether the effect comes from the isoflavones (hormonelike plant compounds) in soy or some other components — perhaps sterols. Isoflavones are now being studied for their potential anticancer properties. They may also guard against osteoporosis. Soy protein can be found in a variety of soy foods, including soybeans, soy nuts, tofu, and soy beverage.
3.Probiotics and prebiotics : Probiotics are active bacterial cultures that can help restore gut function and improve immune response. They are found in yogurt and other fermented foods. Prebiotics are substances that stimulate the growth of specific beneficial bacteria in the colon. Fructooligosaccharide (FOS) and inulin, both of which are found in chicory root, are good examples. They can be extracted from the root and added to processed foods.
4.Lutein : This carotenoid (a type of antioxidant) has been linked to age-related macular degeneration, the main cause of vision loss in older people. It is in foods such as eggs, corn, spinach, kiwifruits, oranges, broccoli, and chard.
Psyllium. In the United States, psyllium is being added to cereals and other foods for its cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber.
5.Oats : Oats have been widely studied for their ability to lower cholesterol levels. They contain a cholesterol-reducing soluble fiber known as beta-glucan.
Stanols and sterols. In the United States, these cholesterol-lowering compounds, which are derived from wood oils, are being added to margarines such as Benecol.
When in Doubt, Stick With Nature’s Functional Foods
As researchers and food companies continue to look at new ways to link food products with disease prevention and treatment, remember that nature has provided us with an abundance of functional foods. Fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are examples of foods naturally packed with phytonutrients that we know can lower the risk of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, and many other chronic diseases. No matter what the future of functional foods brings, you can’t go wrong sticking with the basics.