Many foods feed a growling stomach, taste delicious and provide basic nutrients we need to survive. Then, there are foods that go the extra mile.
Functional foods are one of the biggest food trends in eating today. They generally are defined as any fare that provides health benefits beyond basic nutrition, says Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine.
The Institute of Food Technologists says functional foods include a variety of different types of foods, including:
- Conventional foods
- Fortified, enriched or enhanced foods
- Dietary supplements
However, the functional foods trend is more focused on everyday natural foods that also happen to fight disease or improve your health.
"Functional foods might offer protection from developing chronic diseases, or strengthen immunity," says Camire, who is also past president of the Institute of Food Technologists.
Examples of such foods include:
- Oatmeal, which contains beta glucan, a type of fiber that may lower the risk of heart disease.
- Soy, a protein that may help prevent or fight heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis and symptoms associated with menopause.
- Garlic, which is associated with numerous benefits, including cancer prevention, antibiotic properties, and lowering of both blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- Tomatoes, which contain a carotenoid called lycopene, which may reduce the risk of cancer.
- Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower, cabbage, garden cress, bok choy and Brussels sprouts. These have cancer-prevention properties.
- Citrus fruits, such as oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits. These are rich in vitamin C, which helps prevent scurvy. They also may help prevent a variety of cancers.
- Cranberries, which – when consumed in juice form -- long have been known to help with urinary tract infections.
- Wine and grapes, which appear to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Camire says functional foods have gained in popularity as the population has begun to age.
"The proportion of older adults -- over 50 years old -- is growing all over the world," she says. These adults may live another three or four decades, and many are turning to functional foods to increase their chances for having a comfortable and healthy old age.
"Functional foods are no fountain of youth, (but) some reduce inflammation, improve mood or moderate blood glucose levels," Camire says.
The best functional foods
There is an endless variety of functional foods, and you can learn more about some of the best at the Institute of Food Technologists website.
Camire has her own favorites.
"I'm a big fan of foods that contain anthocyanins, which are red, blue and purple natural pigments found in berries and purple carrots, potatoes, cabbage and other fruits and vegetables," she says.
Camire says anthocyanins are antioxidants that:
- Act as anti-inflammatory agents
- Reduce blood pressure
- Improve memory
- Slow starch digestion to help keep blood glucose low after meals
- Aid night vision
Camire also likes foods that are rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s work as anti-inflammatories and help lower blood pressure and improve mood.
Sources of omega-3s include fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel and sardines. Another good source is single-celled algae, which offers vegans access to the two most important omega-3s, EPA and DHA.
Finally, Camire says many kinds of dietary fiber serve as prebiotics, as they are good sources of "food" for probiotic bacteria that support our immune systems and help regulate serum cholesterol.
"Most Americans do not eat enough fiber," Camire says. "Choosing functional foods with added fiber could also help with reducing serum cholesterol and glucose levels and preventing constipation, which is a major health issue for older adults."