Archive for Wednesday, April 7, 1999


April 7, 1999


I have been hearing a lot about functional foods lately. Just what is a "functional food"?

Functional foods can be defined as foods that contain components that affect health benefits beyond basic nutrition. As the functional attributes of many traditional food products are being discovered, new food products are being developed to enhance or incorporate the beneficial components. It is estimated that 50 percent of the U.S. food market ($250 billion) may be attributable to functional foods if taken at its broadest definition to include dietary supplements, sugar substitutes, fat substitutes, fiber-enriched foods, vegetables, fatless meat, skim milk, low-calorie diets, etc.

Is there a demand for functional foods?

Rapid growth in consumer interest in the relationship between diet and health has produced an insatiable demand for information about functional foods. Some factors fueling interest in functional foods are rising health-care costs, changes in labeling laws affecting health claims, an aging population and rising interest in attaining wellness through diet. Research by the International Food Information Council indicates consumers may be much more interested in functional food concepts than many health professionals realize or are currently prepared to address.

Is the science behind functional foods credible?

According to the International Food Information Council, various approaches establishing scientific bases to support claims related to functional food are being considered. However, assessing the science behind a claim is not straightforward. FDA by law regulates food products different from dietary supplements, according to their intended use and the nature of claims made on the package.

A further complication is that the distinction between a food and a dietary supplement is often not clear. Food products may claim a relationship between components in the diet and a disease or health condition; dietary supplements, on the other hand, may make "structure and function" claims describing effects on normal function of the body.

Furthermore, the scientific community is only in the early stages of understanding the potential for functional foods. The public is often eager to react before there is scientific support. A large body of credible research is needed to confirm benefits of any functional food.

Until this knowledge is more complete, to gain maximum health benefits, consumers should strive to consume a wide variety of foods, including some of the examples listed in the "Table of Functional Food Components." The best advice is to include foods from all food groups, which would incorporate many potentially beneficial components.

Functional Food


Dietary fiber

Potential benefit: may reduce risk of breast or colon cancer; may reduce risk of cardiovascular disease.

Food sources: wheat bran (insoluble fiber), oats (beta glucan), psyllium (soluble fiber).

Fatty acids

Potential benefit: may reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers.

Sources: tuna, fish and marine oils (omega-3 fatty acids), cheese, meat products (conjugated linoleic acid CLA).


Potential benefit: may protect against heart disease and some cancers; may lower LDL cholesterol.

Sources: soybeans, soy-based foots, (isoflavones), flax, rye, vegetables (lignans).

Sulfides (thiois)

Potential benefit: lower LDL cholesterol, maintain healthy immune system.

Sources: onions, garlic, olives, leaks, scallions, cruciferous vegetables (diallyl sulfide, allyl methl trisulfide, dithiolthiones).

Anti-adhesion component

Potential benefit: may improve urinary tract health.

Sources: cranberry juice cocktail.

Collagen hydrolysate

Potential benefit: may improve symptoms of osteoarthritis.

Source: gelatin.

Plant sterols (stanol ester)

Potential benefit: lowers blood cholesterol levels.

Sources: table spreads.


Potential benefit: may lower LDL cholesterol; contains anti-cancer enzymes.

Sources: soy beans, soy foods.


Potential benefit: may neutralize free radicals, may reduce cancer risk.

Sources: fruits (anthocyanins), tea (catechins) citrus (flavanones), fruits, vegetables (flavones), cruciferous vegetables and horseradish (sulphoraphane).


Potential benefit: antioxidant-like activities, may reduce risk of heart and eye disease.

Sources: fruits, vegetables, citrus (caffeic acid, ferulic acid).


Potential benefit: may improve quality of intestinal microflora.

Sources: Jerusalem artichokes, shallots, onion powder (fructose-oligosaccharides, FOS) yogurt (lactobacillus)


Potential benefit: may neutralize free radicals, which damage cells; maintenance of health vision; may reduce risk of cancer.

Sources: carrots (alpha-carotene), fruits, vegetables (beta-carotene), green vegetables (lutein), tomato products (lycopene), eggs, citrus, corn (zeaxanthin).

-- Susan Krumm is an extension agent in family and consumer sciences with K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County, 2110 Harper. She can be reached at 843-7058.

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