Food. It gives fuel for activities, provides necessary nutrients to help maintain healthy body processes and is even a source of pleasure and social delight. When eaten in excess, even the most nutritious food can contribute to unwanted weight gain and disease risk. When there’s not enough of it to consume, the deprivation can cause malnutrition and disease.

In the midst of the known roles food plays, a body of research and evidence is showing that certain foods—both natural and modified—can meet more than simple survival needs. Foods coined “functional” possess powers that supersede the basics of supplying energy and delivering nutrients. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) has defined these naturally occurring (or sometimes manipulated) items as foods that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition (IFIC 2004). Several organizations concur; functional foods do more than just fill our bellies (ADA 2004). The list of foods with special functions is continuously growing, but this article will describe the latest and greatest on the list and how to incorporate these into a healthy diet.

The Functional Foods
If a food is functional when it provides more than just nourishment, then fruits and vegetables are the quintessential functional foods. Loaded with antioxidants, phytochemicals and physiologically active components that protect us from illness and promote health, fruits and vegetables are natural functional foods. Individual stars include tomato products, which are a rich source of the cancer-risk reducer lycopene; broccoli, famed for its association with lowering the risk of certain cancers; and berries, which can boost antioxidant defenses (ADA 2004). In fact, the cancer risk for a fruit and veggie enthusiast is cut in half compared to the risk for a produce naysayer (Hasler 1998).

Functional foods can also be found in areas other than your farm stand or produce aisle. Food manufacturers are developing options you can find in your grocer’s refrigerator or even in a snack bar. Products are being fortified or enhanced to help prevent disease (IFT 2005). Examples include calcium-fortified orange juice, spreads that contain plant sterols, foods enriched with folate and products enhanced with omega-3 fatty acids (IFT 2005). The list of food components either found naturally or added to enhance products is quite extensive and growing steadily. The IFIC devised an informative list of components found in fruits and vegetables, as well as other foods, to illustrate the vast benefits they may provide.
From Function to Fork
The research is mounting, and the list of functional foods and components is lengthening, but the grocery list has to start somewhere. The following section reviews a sprinkling of seemingly average foods that offer more than just nourishment and can be added to your cart today. From function to fork, we look at the science and provide suggestions for how you or your clients can include these foods in your diet.

From Function . . . : Sure, berries are good for you. It’s doubtful this would be disputed, but blackberries make the top of the grocery list because, in the July 2006 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers identified blackberries as having the highest antioxidant level per serving (Halvorsen et al. 2006). Antioxidant content reflects a food’s ability to help protect the body from free-radical damage produced during normal metabolic reactions. Left unattended, free radicals can contribute to heart disease, cancer and a plethora of chronic diseases and signs of aging. Without stealing the blackberry’s thunder, it should be noted that the list of top performers also included walnuts, strawberries, artichokes, cranberries, brewed coffee, raspberries, pecans, blueberries, ground cloves, grape juice and unsweetened baking chocolate.
. . . to Fork: Adding blackberries to your diet can be as simple as sprinkling them on your cereal in the morning or as complex as creating a divine blackberry tart for dessert. Blackberry season is May through August, but thanks to technology, you can find them in your grocer’s freezer year-round. Add them to a yogurt smoothie and enjoy the sweet but tart taste. If you prefer a sweeter berry, look for ones without hulls. A hull indicates that the berry was picked prematurely and will tend to be more tart.

Plant Sterols
From Function . . . : Plant sterols naturally occur in oils, nuts, vegetables and fruits. Studies on the effects of plant sterols on cholesterol date back to the mid-1900s, with a recent burst in recognition from the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Adult Treatment Panel III Report (ATP III) (Grundy 2005). Consuming up to 2 g per day of plant sterols has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol an average of 6%-15% (Grundy 2005). Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a worldwide concern; reductions in LDL cholesterol can make a substantial impact on CVD risk and development.
. . . to Fork: As mentioned, plant sterols can be found naturally in small amounts. But products are available to help you achieve the NCEP recommendation of 2 g per day for LDL cholesterol management. Add this functional food by choosing a spread that contains plant sterols (different products offer from 0.4 to 1.0 g per serving). Other options include orange juice or even granola bars.

From Function . . . : The cholesterol-lowering effect of soluble fiber (beta glucan) is recognized by the FDA and is therefore permissible as a health claim (Hasler 1998). Oat products are a good source of soluble fiber and hence qualify as a functional food. In addition, a 2004 study published in the journal Atherosclerosis investigated the effects that the antioxidant compounds found in oats have on the inflammatory process associated with atherosclerosis (Liu et al. 2004). The data revealed a potential anti-inflammatory effect that could reduce the development of atherosclerosis. Although further studies are needed, oat’s function may be more powerful than just being a breakfast food.
. . . to Fork: Find oat in cereals, breads and baked goods. Oats can also be added to pancakes or even used in a tasty turkey stuffing.

From Function . . . : Milk and other dairy products have long had a reputation as main contributors in helping us achieve adequate dietary calcium. Meeting this need through adolescence is a predictor of long-term bone mineral status and helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis (Fisher et al. 2004). Although the jury is still out and investigations persist, research suggests that the role of dairy in supplying calcium may also include an impact on weight control, type 2 diabetes and blood pressure (Choi et al. 2005, Davies et al. 2000, Heaney et al. 2002). While some researchers have failed to find a correlation between dairy products and changes in body weight or fat mass (Gunther et al. 2005), others have been successful in showing changes in total and central fat loss in obese subjects when dairy was part of a calorie-restricted diet (Zemel et al. 2005). Since dairy consumption may aid in weight loss (when calories are also restricted), and dairy products are a good source of calcium for osteoporosis prevention, dairy makes the list of foods qualifying as more than just nourishment.
. . . to Fork: Sans intolerance or allergy, milk and milk products can easily be incorporated into the diet. Start the day with a bowl of whole-grain cereal, which is rich in fiber, and douse it in nonfat milk. It is a great pre- or postexercise source of protein and carbohydrates. Try yogurt alone or as the base of a fruit-shake blend for a low-calorie, nonfat snack. Low-fat string cheese is a good option with lunch, while a nonfat, milk-based soup makes a healthy dinner.

An assortment of factors influence food choices: accessibility, cost, taste, convenience, tradition and now function. Without altering the diet dramatically—and without compromising taste—you can add functional foods to your grocery list with ease. To help your clients get started, begin with a grocery list, include the four examples provided and review the long list of food components the IFIC offers to see where these functional foods can fit! 

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Choi, H.K., et al. 2005. Dairy consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus in men. Archives of Internal Medicine, 165, 997-1003.
Davies, K.M., et al. 2000. Calcium Intake and Body Weight. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 85 (12), 4635-38.
Fisher, J.O., et al. Meeting calcium recommendations during middle childhood reflects mother-daughter beverage choices and predicts bone mineral status. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79, 698-706.
Grundy, S.M. 2005. Stanol esters as a component of maximal dietary therapy in the National Cholesterol Education Program Adult Treatment Panel III Report. American Journal of Cardiology, 96 (Suppl.), 47D-50D.
Gunther, C.W., et al. 2005. Dairy products do not lead to alterations in body weight or fat mass in young women in a 1-y intervention. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 81, 751-56.
Halvorsen, B.L. 2006. Content of redox-active compounds (i.e., antioxidants) in foods consumed in the United States. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 84, 95-135.
Hasler, C.M. 1998. Functional foods: Their role in disease prevention and health promotion. Food Technology, 52 (2), 57-62.
Heaney, R.P., et al. 2002. Calcium and weight: Clinical studies. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 21 (2), 152S-55S.
Institute of Food Technologists. 2005. Expert Report on Functional Foods: Opportunities and Challenges.; retrieved Nov. 8, 2006.
International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation. 2004. Background on functional foods.; retrieved Nov. 8, 2006.
Liu, L., et al. 2004. The antiartherogenic potential of oat phenolic compounds. Atherosclerosis, 175, 39-49.

Zemel, M.B., et al. 2005. Dairy augmentation of total and central fat loss in obese subjects. International Journal of Obesity, 29, 391-97.