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The Role of Functional Foods

Updated on January 17, 2018

The interactions between foods and health have been recognized since the times of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Interestingly enough, this relationship has generated a great deal of interest recently with the introduction of a new category of foods called "functional foods." Clare Hasler, Ph.D., Director of the University of Illinois Functional Foods for Health Program, has defined functional foods as "food or food components that, by virtue of physiologically active components, provide benefits beyond basic nutrition and may prevent disease or promote health." Exactly which foods can be classified as functional foods is sparking a lot of debate within nutrition circles. Nonetheless, some of the favourites include fruits, vegetables, yogurts, oatbran/oatmeal and soy. Even chocolate contains components which have been associated with health benefits and disease prevention.

Lycopene, the natural red pigment found abundantly in tomatoes, watermelon, red grapefruits and red peppers may play a role in reducing the risk of prostate cancer as reported by the Harvard Medical School. Recent studies also suggest that intake of lycopene from pizza and tomato sauces also have positive health benefits. What may be a serendipitous revelation to many is that tomato condiments such as ketchup and salsa also contain lycopene, which may also help in the maintenance of good health. In fact, the ketchup on that hot dog may be more nutritious than the actual meat itself!

A component found in artichoke, onions, chicory, and bananas, termed inulin (not to confused with the hormone "insulin") boasts several positive attributes including low-calorie and dietary fiber-like effects. Research has shown that inulin stimulates the growth of bifidobacteria, a type of "good bacteria" naturally found in the intestine. The potential health benefits of these "good bacteria" can be summarized as follows: lower blood cholesterol levels, a healthier intestinal environment, an improved immune system, better digestion, and an increased absorption of minerals like calcium which promotes healthy bones.

Oatmeal and oatbran contain a component that is believed to regulate blood sugar levels in a manner that prevents sharp rises or declines. This has many positive attributes when considering diabetic patients or individuals suffering from abnormal blood sugar levels, by helping to prevent and/or reduce the onset of heart problems. It appears that mum's advice to start the day with a hot bowl of oatmeal may be your ticket to good health.

Chocolate, a weak point for many, has traditionally been consumed with an ounce of guilt. However, research at the University of California at Davis may shift those guilty feelings to ones of pure bliss. Chocolates are now known to contain natural antioxidants that may help lower the LDL cholesterol, often designated as the "bad cholesterol" in the body, and could ultimately reduce the risk of heart disease. However, chocolate lovers must still be cautious of the high calorie and fat content that is present in most chocolate treats.

An abundance of research has emerged on the health benefits of soy consumption. Soybeans contain about 48-50% protein and studies have suggested that by substituting soy protein for animal protein (animal meats), an individual may significantly reduce LDL cholesterol, a strong contributor to cardiovascular disease. The active components of soy protein are called isoflavones. Cross-cultural comparisons of heart disease have shown that countries like Japan, whose citizens consume a diet rich in soy, are less likely to develop blocked arteries when compared to western nations like the United States and Canada. It is believed that a low fat diet that contains significant amounts of soy, as well as fiber, grains, fruits, and vegetables, may lead to a significant reduction in heart disease.

An important point to remember is the old cliché that states there is "too much of good thing." Although functional foods do offer a variety of health benefits, they are still foods with calories. Overindulgence, as has been the case with a lot of the low fat foods to hit the market in the last decade, can lead to overweight and obese individuals. Marketing tactics have led consumers to believe that because a food is low fat, you can consume as much as you like of that food. Unfortunately, this is not the case! Energy intake (calories) that is not utilized throughout the day for activity (eg. exercise) will be stored in the body as fat. The prevalence of obesity has become a serious public health concern in many western countries. A recent report by the United States government stated that greater than 50% of all American adults and nearly 25% of American children are considered overweight. What is even more unbelievable is that the United States government spends $68 billion annually for direct health care expenses as a result of those extra pounds. Being overweight puts you at a greater risk for other medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.

The research on functional foods is ongoing and promising, yet many questions still remain unanswered. People should be aware that consuming any of the mentioned foods does not guarantee the prevention of diseases. Functional foods have beneficial components that must also be coupled with other characteristics including low-fat, low saturated fats, proper serving sizes/portions and regular exercise. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet when it comes to diet, good health, and disease prevention, but becoming aware of functional foods and adding them to your diet is a step in the right direction.


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