Why the buzz around functional foods?

Why the buzz around functional foods?

By Paromita Raha

With enhanced access to nutrition information and greater label transparency, today’s informed consumers want to be responsible for their own healthcare and well being. An increase in awareness of food ingredients and overall lifestyle changes have triggered the demand for nutritious food choices across the globe. According to the US Census Bureau’s population projections, by 2030, all the baby boomers in the United States will be over the age of 65, outnumbering children for the first time. This age disparity will increase the need for food manufacturers to identify key health issues and capitalize on ingredients that provide health benefits.

Scientific advancement in agricultural technology coupled with a surge in demand for healthier foods will redefine the future of food, reviving the concept of functional foods. 

What are functional foods?

People have been consuming functional foods for years, yet the term was not used in common parlance until recently. The Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare in 1991 first introduced legislation known as FOSHU identifying functional foods as  “food for specified health use,” under which 1,068 products have been approved. In 2015, a less stringent regulation regime called “Foods with Functional Claims” (FFC) came into effect, under which 1,785 products have already hit the market.

Foods, in general, can be perceived as functional because they provide essential macronutrients, such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals that enable the body to grow, develop, and survive. However, functional foods go beyond meeting our basic nutrient needs and provide certain components that promote optimal health and reduce disease risk when consumed as part of a regular diet. But unfortunately, there is currently no internationally recognized standard definition for functional foods.

Which foods qualify as “functional”?

Typically, many of the foods that we consume fit into this category. As one walks along the grocery aisle, it is hard to avoid witnessing a rise in probiotic infused yogurts, fiber-enriched breakfast cereals, vitamin D–supplemented milk, or folic acid–rich pasta. These are foods that have been modified in a positive way to increase the intake of essential components like probiotics, fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants, thus making them functional foods.

Foods don’t necessarily have to be fortified to make the list of functional foods, though.

  • A large number of naturally occurring foods, including leafy greens, colored vegetables, and berries of all kinds, are a source of antioxidants.
  • Nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds provide healthy fats, fiber, and magnesium.
  • Avocados, coconuts, whole grains, and legumes are rich in fiber.
  • Fish such as wild salmon, mackerel, tuna, and herring provide omega-3 fatty acid.
  • Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi are well known for their probiotic content.

What are the benefits?

Depending on the components present, each food confers its function by specific means. The antioxidants found in vegetables and fruits, such as carotenoids (carrots), lycopene (tomatoes), and polyphenols (berries), along with those in turmeric and green tea, prevent cells from accumulating free radicals, causing oxidative damage during conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, stroke, and respiratory diseases. A fiber-rich diet comprising whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables promotes digestion and gut health. Fiber intake also lowers the rate of glucose metabolism, providing protection against type 2 diabetes.

Probiotics consumed through a vast range of fermented foods have been found to be effective against diarrhea, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome. Dark green vegetables, berries, kiwis, carrots, and oysters are all rich in vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals, whereby they preserve collagen in the skin, imparting them with anti-aging properties. Functional foods have also been designed to work for specific ailments, such as papaya leaf extract syrup, which has been shown to be effective against dengue fever, and Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods (RUTFs) have been recommended to treat severe acute malnutrition

What is the market for functional foods?

The increasing awareness of health-conscious millennials, the established association between probiotics and better gut health, the impact of omega-3 fatty acid consumption in decreasing cardiovascular diseases, and the government-led programs to curb malnutrition in Asia through fortified foods all play a role in the overall growth of the global market for functional foods, which is projected to reach $275.77 billion USD by 2025. Vitamins have been reported to top the list of functional foods, alone contributing to a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.7% of the projected 7.9% overall growth over the next 7 years. Regionally, the Asia Pacific region is predicted to contribute to the largest growth in this industry that constitutes foods, beverages, and supplements, with China, India, and Japan taking the lead. 

How do consumers impact the future of functional foods?

At least one member in 39% of households in the United States suffers from diseases like depression, hypertension, obesity, and high cholesterol, and many choose to treat them by modifying their diets. The accelerated interest of consumers in functional ingredients is met by manufacturers who supply more functional foods to the retail stores and restaurants who are tweaking their menu to include these ingredients.

Consumer decisions in preferential buying have always shaped the future of the food and beverage industry. It is interesting to note that around 50% of the consumer decisions have shifted from traditional drivers like the taste, price, and convenience of foods to evolving drivers like health, safety, social impact, experience, and transparency. Consumer surveys reveal that ingredients listed on the label top the list of motivators for purchasing a food product.

Will it really help?

Embracing functional foods by consciously including them in our diets may promote wellness and reduce the risk of diseases. However, we need further scientific data to prove the efficacy of lycopene to reduce heart disease, to inform the debate around the real benefits of probiotics, or to ascertain the ability of green tea polyphenols to prevent cardiovascular diseases. Despite the controversies, the fact is that you surely can’t go wrong with a healthy diet well balanced with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

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