The definition of “functional foods” is very fashionable. But it does not always mean the same thing: some believe that a food is functional simply because it provides nutrients and has physiological effects (and so they are all).
In order not to get lost in the jungle of functional foods, there is a new guide developed by the European Commission. «Functional Foods» offers valuable insights into this rapidly evolving field, including a reliable definition, an analysis of health benefits and guidance on how to evaluate scientific evidence. The brochure reviews the health benefits of functional foods at various ages of life and for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. For those interested in exploring the subject, there is also a list of links to European research projects on various foods.
By narrowing the field, there are foods considered functional when scientific research finds out the beneficial effects on health and prevention of diseases: this is the case, for example, of the tomato for its richness of lycopene, the salmon for omega 3 fatty acids or of soy for phytoestrogens.
According to another point of view, the definition should be reserved for enriched or enhanced foods – with vitamins. minerals, fatty acids, and intended for the general population or for particular groups at risk of nutritional deficiencies. Furthermore, there are those who consider it a strictly marketing terminology, able to draw attention to a food emphasizing its health benefits, so that it is perceived as beneficial also by the consumer. Finally, there are those who combine the two things, and suggests that any food, if properly advertised, can “become” a functional food.
According to the Commission’s Concerted Action on Functional Food Science in Europe (FUFOSE), it is functional “a food which has a beneficial effect on one or more functions in the body, beyond the nutritional effects, in a way relevant to the improvement of the state of health and well-being and / or to reduce the risk of illness. It is consumed as part of a normal diet. It is not a pill, a capsule or any form of dietary supplement “.
Thus, for example, they are functional foods:
- A food such as fruit or natural cereals or modified through genetic selection or other technologies (eg tomatoes with enhanced lycopene, vegetable oils enriched with vitamin E, rice enriched with vitamin A).
- A food with an added component (for example yoghurt with phytosterols);
A food to which a component has been reduced or eliminated (for example low-fat cheese).
- A food in which one or more components has been modified, eliminated, replaced or enhanced to improve its beneficial properties (for example a fruit juice with enhanced antioxidants, or a yogurt with the addition of prebiotics or probiotics).
Many functional foods are already on the market, and, given the promising premises, many others will be developed, perhaps boasting health benefits that will not hold up for a scientific examination. Research in this field helps to balance different interests.
“There is a lot of scientific evidence that supports the health benefits of certain foods. Our challenge is therefore to develop effective synergies between science and the development of food products for the benefit of consumers “, wrote the authors of the guide. «Some functional foods could favor an optimal state of health and mental performance, as well as modify behaviors». With tools such as metabolomics (metabolic profile), researchers are also able to combine information on the physiological response to food with individual genetic information, so as to develop personalized diets.
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