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What Are Functional Foods and Why Are They So Popular?

Health-conscious consumers are taking the saying “you are what you eat” much more seriously these days if the rise of functional foods is any indication.

Wait, I hear you ask. Aren’t all foods functional? It turns out that some are more than others.

The term ‘functional foods’ denotes an increasingly popular trend in food consumption. It refers to both natural (a.k.a. ‘conventional’) and enriched (a.k.a. ‘modified’) foodstuffs that don’t just satisfy our nutritional needs but also improve health or reduce risk of disease. 

For lack of a better descriptor, consider functional foods those ingredients that are both medicinal and nutritional. Or, as the father of medicine, Hippocrates, said (perhaps apocryphally): “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.”

The Evolution of Functional Food

‘Functional food’ as a phrase originated in Japan in the late 1980s. This is when government agencies there attempted to improve public health by approving foods with proven health benefits. (Of course food as medicine, as noted by Hippocrates above, is an ancient concept.)

But foods created for a specific health purpose can be traced back almost 60 years. Indeed, it was in the late ‘60s when Unilever came up with spreads under the Becel brand that made claims of reducing our cholesterol intake by using plant sterols and stanols. These products not only addressed a specific consumer need (for a butter substitute) but also improved public health (by reducing the risk of heart disease). These foods were, for all intents and purposes, functional.

Sometimes also referred to as ‘nutraceuticals,’ functional foods as a consumer category are becoming increasingly visible thanks to the convergence of a number of factors. These include scientific advancements in nutrition; public acceptance of the idea that diet plays a big role in both preventing and managing chronic diseases; and, in turn, increasing consumer demand for healthier foods. 

That middle idea has become especially evident. Simply look at the increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease in North America. Functional foods address these concerns by offering targeted nutrition to support a variety of bodily functions by boosting immunity, improving digestion, enhancing brain function, and reducing inflammation.

What Are Examples of Functional Foods?

As noted, functional foods are generally divided into those that are considered ‘conventional’ and those that are ‘modified.’ The former are important sources of nutrients like minerals, antioxidants, vitamins, and heart-healthy fats; the latter have been fortified to increase the benefits of a particular food with the likes of vitamins, probiotics, and fibre.

When it comes to conventional nutraceuticals, we are talking about the usual suspects from Canada’s Food Guide: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, seafood, fermented foods, and herbs & spices. Examples of modified foods include juices, dairy products, eggs, grains, and cereals that have been fortified.

What Consumers Want

Today’s consumers are demanding foods with traceable health benefits. While foodies may revel in the rarity of ingredients and the gustatory complexity of their dinners, those interested in functional foods want their meals maxed in terms of what it can do for them health-wise. 

That may mean fatty fish like salmon, with its omega-3s reducing cardiovascular disease. Or calcium-fortified orange juice at breakfast for those who don’t consume enough dairy. Then there are the probiotics, the beneficial bacteria found in the likes of yogurt that promote gut health and strengthen our immune systems. And antioxidants like those in blueberries and green tea seem to protect us against age-related diseases like cancer and macular degeneration.

Functional Foods in Canada

Canada is a potentially huge market for functional foods, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is when demand for immunity-boosting foods grew substantially worldwide. Functional foods are not currently recognized by Health Canada as such, although some nutrient claims are allowed on food labels, like for omega-3s and probiotics. Those labels can also make selective disease-reduction claims.

For now, regardless of the official status of functional foods, Canadians are benefitting from government-issued dietary advice, like that provided by Canada’s Food Guide. That said, a 2021 survey conducted by Halifax’s Dalhousie University indicated that only about 21% of Canadians consider a food’s ‘bioactive’ properties (i.e. those that have a health benefit) when shopping for fruits and vegetables. 

That same survey indicated that price was a major barrier for many Canadians wanting to eat functional foods like fruits and vegetables—a barrier only made worse by ongoing worldwide inflation. This suggests that Canadian government policies (like those instituted back in 1980s Japan, as discussed) may be needed to encourage—and perhaps subsidize—the consumption of functional foods.

The Future of Functional Food 

Vasantha Rupasinghe, a professor at Dalhousie’s Department of Plant, Food, and Environmental Sciences, told the school’s website in December 2022 that the widespread implementation of functional foods will require Health Canada to work with research institutes to establish Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) for common food bioactives. (DRIs are scientifically-developed nutrient values that help in the development of nutritional labels.) Doing so will let consumers read about the benefits of functional foods on food labels in their grocery stores. Canadians also have to be educated, he said, about the benefits of functional foods, not only in public school but in medical school too. 

With widespread acknowledgement of this latest iteration of eating healthy, we can expect to see further research into food science. That could lead to the development of new functional ingredients and the expansion of their application into healthier modified foods. Artificial intelligence, for instance, could be one avenue for the creation of those new ingredients, to address specific health needs.

Hopefully, we will also see some relief in food prices soon, making it easier for Canadian families to buy functional foods, although those prices are expected to continue rising through 2023. In the meantime, it is encouraging to see a food trend that is both fashionable and functional.

Sean Plummer | Contributing Writer

Spring 2024

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