Most of us can probably share colourful stories about how food has personally and uniquely impacted our lives. While food choices have deep-rooted influences including cultural and social factors, the notion that food provides nourishment for the body is difficult to argue. The message that foods can promote well-being through disease prevention and therapeutic health benefits seems everywhere in our food environment as we peruse grocery aisles, bombarded with product claims about omega-3 eggs, cholesterol-lowering margarine, probiotic-rich yogurt and fibre-enriched brownies. These examples of so-called functional foods appear to reflect a shift in consumer interest.
What are functional foods?
In essence, functional foods are foods that provide a special health benefit in addition to basic nutrients1. A challenge for health professionals and consumers alike, however, is that a standardized definition for “functional food” does not exist2.
Health Canada has proposed that “a functional food is similar in appearance to, or may be, a conventional food is consumed as part of a usual diet, and is demonstrated to have physiological benefits and/or reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions.”3 The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says something slightly different by stating that functional foods are “whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence.”4
Are functional foods too good to be true?
The short answer is – sometimes. The uncertainty over the definition of “functional foods” is further blurred by mixed evidence supporting the health benefits of different functional foods. Perhaps taking a look at a few examples can help shed some light on the fact that there is often no simple answer.
Red fruits and vegetables
|Health benefit||Lycopene is a carotenoid that contributes to the red pigment in tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables, and it has been suggested to help reduce the risk of heart disease.5|
|Verdict||There have been some small-scale research conducted on humans, showing an association between high levels of lycopene with a lower risk of heart disease. However, this research is limited and further evidence is needed to determine the amounts of lycopene consumed that are beneficial.6|
|Health benefit||Probiotics, which are known as the “good” bacteria are found naturally in the body, in certain foods, as well as through supplements. They are touted to help with diarrhea and to improve gastrointestinal symptoms.7|
|Verdict||Further research is still needed to understand how the health benefits of probiotics are affected by quantities, strains, and types consumed.8|
Plant sterol fortified foods
|Health benefit||Plant sterols are naturally occurring in some foods, however only in very small amounts. Foods fortified with plant sterol have now been manufactured as plant sterols are believed to lower cholesterol.9|
|Verdict||Health Canada has stated that consuming 2 grams per day of plant sterols helps to lower cholesterol.10|
|Health benefit||Green tea contains substances known as polyphenols, to which many of green tea’s health benefits, such as prevention of cancer and heart disease, have been attributed.11|
|Verdict||Overall, the research suggests that the role of green tea in preventing cancer is still unproven, although consuming it moderately is safe12. For adults, a maximum of 400 mg of caffeine daily is considered safe.13|
The bottom line
Evaluating the health benefits of functional foods can be confusing, but you can try to make informed decisions by considering the source of information and remembering that there is more to the story behind every health claim. Ultimately, a healthy diet consists of a balance and variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and so on. Be mindful that functional foods are not remedies for unhealthy diets. If you have questions, concerns, or just would like some information about functional foods and nutrition, you should seek the advice of a trained health professional.
Registered Dietitian Services
Registered dietitians in Canada are regulated health professionals with accredited university degrees and practical training. We can help you understand how to make personalized nutrition changes and make informed decisions to meet your nutritional and health goals. Book personalized nutrition services directly with a Shoppers Drug Mart registered dietitian at shoppersdrugmart.ca/dietitians. Registered Dietitians are also available at select Wellwise locations or at wellwise.ca/dietitians.
Paige To, is a registered dietitian with a masters of applied nutrition, who works with Shopper Drug Mart.
- ca. (2018). Facts on Caffeine. Retrieved from: https://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Functional-Foods.aspx
- Danik, M, et al. (2015). A new definition of functional food by FFC: what makes a new definition unique? Functional Foods in Health and Disease. 5(6): 209-223.
- Health Canada. (2002). Policy Paper – Nutraceuticals/Functional Foods and Health Claims On Foods. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/food-labelling/health-claims/nutraceuticals-functional-foods-health-claims-foods-policy-paper.html
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2017). Functional Foods. Retrieved from: https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/healthy-eating/functional-foods
- Dietitians of Canada. Cardiovascular Disease – Evidence Summary. In: Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition® [PEN]. 2017 Oct 19 [cited 2018 July 3]. Available from: http://www.pennutrition.com. Access only by subscription. Free trials available. Click Sign Up on PEN login page.
- Dietitians of Canada. What is the effect of carotenoids on cardiovascular disease? In: Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition® [PEN]. 2010 May 18 [cited 2018 July 3]. Available from: http://www.pennutrition.com. Access only by subscription. Free trials available. Click Sign Up on PEN login page.
- Parker, EA, et al. (2018). Probiotics and gastrointestinal conditions: An overview of evidence from the Cochrane Collaboration. Nutrition. 45: 125-134.e11
- ca. (2016). The Pros of Probiotics. Retrieved from: http://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Digestion/The-Pros-of-Probiotics.aspx
- Dietitians Association of Australia. (n.d.). All about plant sterols and stanols for cholesterol management. Retrieved from: https://daa.asn.au/smart-eating-for-you/smart-eating-fast-facts/nourishing-nutrients/all-about-plant-sterols-and-stanols-for-cholesterol-management/
- Health Canada. (2010). Plant Sterols and Blood Cholesterol Lowering. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/food-labelling/health-claims/assessments/plant-sterols-blood-cholesterol-lowering-nutrition-health-claims-food-labelling.html
- Chacko, SM. (2010). Beneficial effects of green tea: A literature review. Chinese Medicine. 5: 13.
- Boehm, K, et al. (2009). Green tea (Camellia sinensis) for the prevention of cancer. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD005004.pub2
- ca. (2018). Facts on Caffeine. Retrieved from: http://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Caffeine/Facts-on-Caffeine.aspx
Originally published in July 2018.