Functional Foods

By Parul Kharod

Functional foods are foods that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition. There is no specific definition for a functional food. A functional food is generally defined as a food that provides benefits beyond the basic nutrition provided by that food. The additional benefit is due to a component in the food item that offers physical or biological—i.e., functional—benefits. By knowing which foods can provide specific health benefits, you can make food choices that allow you to take greater control of your health.

The primary role of diet is to provide adequate amount of nutrients for growth and health. There is now increasing scientific evidence that some foods and food components have beneficial effects above and beyond providing basic nutrients. Functional foods are thought to play a role in reducing or minimizing the risk of certain diseases and other health conditions. These are foods which are consumed as part of the normal diet and that contain biologically active components that promote health.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as: “whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence."

Functional foods should be in the form of normal foods and they must demonstrate their effects in amounts that can normally be expected to be consumed in the diet. Some foods naturally contain a functional component, whereas with other foods, a functional ingredient is added to the food to create a functional food.

A manufacturer can market its product as a whole food or as enriched food, fortified food, or enhanced food if nutrients are added:

Enriched - the addition of one or more nutrients that was lost during food processing
Fortified - the addition of one or more nutrients into a food
Enhanced - the addition of one or more nutrients into a food by modification or indirect methods

A functional food can be one or any combination of these possibilities:

• a natural whole food
• a food to which a component has been added
• a food from which a component has been removed by technological or biotechnological means
• a food in which the nature of one or more components has been modified
• a food in which the bioavailability of one or more components has been modified

A functional food may be targeted at the whole population or for particular by age group or other specific categories.

These are examples of various functional food categories:

Foods with Naturally-Occurring Functional Components


• These are anti-oxidants that are naturally present in foods. Carotenoids are present in all yellow and orange fruits and vegetables such as carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe. Lycopene is present in red fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit. Lutein and Zeaxanthin are present in all green vegetables and citrus fruits. Flavonoids and polyphenols are present in foods such as green tea, ginger, garlic, and spices and herbs.

Dietary Fibers

• These natural fibers support digestive health, and may reduce the risk of some types of cancer. Fiber from these foods help lower cholesterol and balance blood sugars thus helping to manage diabetes and prevent heart disease. Examples include oats, barley, rye, corn, peas, beans and pulses, apples, citrus fruits. These fibers are also known as pre-biotics.

Fatty Acids

• Unsaturated fatty acids and omega 3 fatty acids present in avocado, nuts and seeds help reduce risk of heart disease, build immunity and support eye health and mental function.


• Isoflavones are a class of flavonoids that exhibit antioxidant, anticancer, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties. Foods that contain high amounts of isoflavones include soy beans, peanuts, chick peas, alfalfa, and fava beans.

Foods with Enhanced Functional Properties

Fermented products

• Yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, pickles, and Kombucha all have active cultures that help improve or populate the quantity and variety of bacteria in our gut. The process of fermentation enhances the number of probiotic bacteria in foods such as idli, dosa, dhokla, and fermented foods.

Sprouted grains and beans

• Many foods contain anti-nutrients, substances that inhibit the absorption or use of other nutrients. Sprouting can disable these anti-nutrients such as phenol, tannins, lectins, saponins, etc. Sprouting can alter enzyme activity which helps with easier digestion and reduced gas formation. Sprouting enhances the bioavailability of minerals such as zinc, iron and calcium.

Foods with Added Functional Ingredients

Certain foods have been fortified or enriched with added nutrients to improve their function or to make them more nutritious. Vitamins and minerals have often been added as the easiest way to supply these nutrients to a large population to prevent deficiencies.

• Orange Juice fortified with calcium
• Breads and cereals fortified with folic acid
• Breads, cereals, yogurt and other foods fortified with fiber
• Salt fortified with iodine
• Margarine fortified with plant sterols

Eat a diet that has a variety of foods that provide essential nutrients and help improve health. Eat small, balanced meals at regular intervals. Be mindful about portion sizes. Don't fall prey to marketing gimmicks and quick-fix solutions. Keep in mind that while functional foods may help promote wellness, they can't make up for poor eating habits.


Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist and works as a Clinical Dietitian with Outpatient Nutrition Services at WakeMed Hospital in Cary and Raleigh. She can be reached at