Functional Foods: What are the Health Benefits?

Functional Foods: What are the Health Benefits?

Publish Date March 4, 2024 4 Minute Read

Have you heard of functional foods? Whether they’re providing us with energy, protein for muscle repair, or vitamins and minerals for cell function, all foods serve a purpose. On the other hand, functional foods are those that provide a variety of health benefits in addition to their essential nutrients. Functional foods may help support your immune system, play a role in the prevention of chronic illnesses and more.

What Are Functional Foods?

Basic nutrients you can find in foods include vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein and fat. Functional foods can be defined as foods that provide health benefits beyond those basic nutrients. They may contain additional compounds like antioxidants, dietary fiber, probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids.

The term, “functional foods,” originated in Japan in the 1980s, when the government created a group of foods specifically for improving the health of the general population. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food and label claims in the United States, there are no legal definitions or regulations for the use of the term “functional food.” This can make it hard to differentiate functional foods from other food products. Reading the ingredient list and the nutrition facts label can help you make a more healthful choice.

Whole, nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and grains are functional foods. Functional foods also include those fortified with vitamins, minerals, probiotics, protein or fiber. For example, soluble fiber in oats can help to reduce cholesterol and aid in controlling blood sugar levels. Fruits and vegetables are also naturally high in anti-inflammatory antioxidants.

Some foods are naturally low in or lack certain nutrients, so choosing a fortified version may help to increase your overall nutrient intake. For example, calcium fortified orange juice or iron-fortified cereals are considered functional foods.

Examples of Functional Foods

Broadly speaking, functional foods are categorized as “conventional” and “modified.” Conventional foods include natural, whole foods packed with nutrients such as antioxidants, fiber, probiotics and healthy fats. Modified functional foods have added nutrients such as vitamins, minerals or fiber to increase their health benefits and fill any gaps in your diet.

Common examples of conventional functional foods:

  • Fruits - blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, grapes, pears, oranges, mangos
  • Vegetables - carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, beets
  • Nuts and seeds - walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds
  • Herbs and spices - cilantro, turmeric, paprika, ginger, cinnamon, parsley
  • Seafood - salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout
  • Probiotic foods - yogurt, kimchi, kraut, miso, kombucha
  • Whole grains and legumes - oats, buckwheat, lentils, farro, kidney beans, black beans
  • Beverages - green tea, coffee, black tea

Common examples of modified functional foods:

  • Fortified milk and yogurt
  • Fortified juices
  • Fortified plant milks (almond, cashew, coconut, oat milks)
  • Fortified grains: pasta, bread, cereal, granola
  • Fortified eggs

What Are the Health Benefits of Functional Foods?

Functional foods provide essential nutrients to help prevent nutrient deficiencies, protect against diseases and maintain good health. Vibrantly colored foods offer more than just good looks. The same compounds that give fruits and vegetables their color also produce some of their vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Many functional foods are rich in antioxidants, which are compounds that may protect the body’s cells, decrease inflammation and boost your immune system.

For example, anthocyanins – the pigments that make plants red, blue and purple – are chock full of antioxidants with many health benefits. Anthocyanin-rich foods have cancer-fighting properties that may promote heart and cognitive health, improve memory, maintain healthy blood pressure and reduce inflammation. You can find anthocyanins in blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, grapes, pomegranates, black rice and more.

Some other functional foods, such as salmon and walnuts, are high in omega-3 fats, which have anti-inflammatory properties that may boost brain and heart health. Fiber-rich foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds can enhance digestion, help control blood sugar and promote heart health.

If you’re inspired to learn more, meet with a Kroger Health registered dietitian, our nutrition experts.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and is not meant to provide healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.

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