'Functional food' hits the spot for those with an appetite for health

The phrase 'functional food' is becoming more common. So what does it mean?

More than ever, people are getting the message that food can improve health, and research continues to show that nutrition plays a crucial role in the prevention of disease, especially chronic disease. And if you've been paying attention to that message, chances are you've heard the word "functional" tossed about. We have functional exercise and functional medicine. Then there's the phrase "functional foods." It's a tad medicinal sounding, but we'll bite: What is a functional food? It sounds important to anyone trying to live a healthful life. We want to function, don't we?

The answer is a bit complicated. Just as there are no federal regulations or rules governing the word "natural," no legal definition exists for functional foods in the United States.

According to the Mayo Clinic, functional foods are generally considered to offer benefits that go beyond basic nutrition. Such foods may be, the National Institutes of Health states, "a source of mental and physical well-being, contributing to the prevention and reduction of … diseases or enhancing certain physiological functions."

Oatmeal is a familiar example of a conventional functional food because it contains soluble fiber that can help lower cholesterol levels. Some foods and beverages are modified to enhance their positive effects (think orange juice fortified with calcium and vitamin D); some are formulated to be "free from" ingredients such as gluten; still others are made for certain health conditions.

Clinical nutritionist and functional doctor (yes, there are lots of them) Michael Wald places functional foods in four categories:

• Conventional foods, including fruits, grains, vegetables and nuts. "Whole, natural foods, such as fruits and grains, are good for most people," Wald said. "But if you suffer from allergies or intolerance, such as to gluten in some whole grains, they can be harmful."

• Modified foods, including fortified cereals, yogurt and orange juice. Read labels and choose carefully. Yogurt, for instance, can have probiotics and active cultures, but it's often also filled with sugar and artificial flavors and colors. And you might need to eat much more than a serving of a food to get the beneficial amount of the ingredient you're seeking.

Conventional brands of cereal, even when fortified, also can have sugar and artificial ingredients you might not want. "Unrefined, unprocessed, possibly gluten-free grains are the way to go," Wald said. And while fortified orange juice can provide extra vitamin D and calcium, it also has high levels of sugar. For example, Tropicana Calcium + Vitamin D has 22 grams of sugar per serving and provides 35% of your daily requirement of calcium and 25% of your daily requirement of vitamin D.

• Medical foods. These are essentially special formulations for specific conditions such as diabetes and heart disease and are used under the supervision of a medical specialist. "These foods are produced in factories," Wald said, "which does not sound particularly healthy, but some forms of medical foods can be; there are those made of dehydrated fruits and vegetables that provide the equivalent of dozens of pieces of produce." (Banatrol Plus with Bimuno — banana flakes with a prebiotic for diarrhea — is a good example.)

• Foods for special dietary use, such as infant formula and hypoallergenic foods. This is where the gluten-free and other free-from foods live.

Additionally, some experts also include a category for beverages: "Functional beverages are definitely leading the way," said Todd Runestad, editor in chief of the trade magazine Functional Ingredients. "And coffee is the greatest example; now caffeine is taken out of the coffee cup and put into all the energy drinks. Just go into Whole Foods and you see all kinds of interesting beverages, like the high-pressure processing juices, sometimes called cold-pressed juice. You can taste the difference, but they tend to be pretty expensive, like $8 a bottle."

Runestad is also excited about new foods that fall into the functional category, such as Banza, a gluten-free, high-protein, high-fiber and low-glycemic pasta made from chickpeas.

Alas, price is an issue with most new functional foods, and the more beneficial ingredients are added, the more the cost tends to go up. Take Tumeric Alive, a bright yellow elixir made with 13 grams of turmeric (well above the therapeutic dose) as well as ginger, bee pollen, chia, hemp milk and other ingredients: "Of course it's better to drink that instead of a Coke," Runestad said. "But at nearly $6 a bottle, you might be better off taking a supplement instead."

Many so-called functional foods don't contain enough of the beneficial ingredients they're touting to be, well, beneficial. You might decide a supplement is a better choice, or you might choose whole, fresh foods that contain what you're looking for.

"Functional foods can bridge the gap between what you're getting from highly nutritious conventional foods, like kale," Runestad said. "And for most healthy people who eat well, that's enough. But if you're looking to improve your health, for instance to improve blood sugar, you might have to do the math and take supplements to fill those needs, especially to get the optimal amounts of omega 3, probiotics, fiber, iron, magnesium and other nutrients."

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Natural foods that contribute to good health

Dr. Michael Wald recommends conventional foods that fall into the functional food category:

Vegetables, especially those high in mono-unsaturated fatty acids, such as avocados, are a source of fiber and phytocompounds known as proanthocyanidins, or OPCs. Studies have shown them to be anti-inflammatory, detoxifying and immune-modulating.

Berries and other fruits contain vitamins, minerals, enzymes and large amounts of phytocompounds. Berries are the highest in healthful phytocompounds, and consuming several servings per day has the potential to improve and/or prevent many health issues.

Fish, especially those highest in omega 3 fatty acids; a type of unsaturated fatty acids shown to reduce cancer risk, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune disease and other health problems. Look for mackerel, lake trout, herring, Alaskan salmon and albacore tuna. Because toxins such as mercury and arsenic are inevitable, it's best to also take nutritional supplements that can help the body remove or detoxify these substances. Also, raw nuts, seeds and fruits and vegetables are powerful detoxifiers and can help offset toxins in fish.

Raw nuts and seeds, including cashews, almonds, walnuts and sunflower seeds, contain high amounts of vitamins, minerals, live enzymes, healthful phytocompounds and healthy unsaturated fatty acids.

Peg Moline is the author of "The Doctor's Book of Natural Health Remedies."

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