Functional foods: while the term may sound very millennium, you have undoubtedly seen, if not tried some yourself. Functional foods are of course still foods, but they have been designed, to offer a particular health benefit over and above the traditional nutrients they contain.

As nutrition science is moving from the concept of "adequate nutrition" to "optimal nutrition", new food products, which have the potential to improve mental and physical wellbeing and which may also reduce the risk of diseases, are being developed.

As a science based approach is essential, key partners from Europe's scientific community, governmental and intergovernmental bodies and the food and agricultural industry have created a platform to establish the fundamental concepts for these functional foods.(1)
All functional foods have a common denominator: they affect beneficially one or more target functions in the body and the beneficial effect can be expected when they are consumed as part of a normal food pattern.

Functional foods usually, look, smell and taste the same as their regular counterparts.

While the European consumer is just becoming used to such innovative foods, in Japan, people have been choosing them for decades and in so doing have been taking preventive health into their own hands.

Many now embrace the concept that functional foods have specific roles to play at different times throughout life and accept that certain foods may help for example, menopausal women reduce their risk of osteoporosis while others could help middle age men lower the risk of developing heart disease.

Although functional foods may indeed play such important roles, it is crucial that their manufacturers are not allowed to make claims based on hearsay rather than fact. In an attempt to ensure this does not occur, the United Nations FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarus, the Council of Europe and national regulators are drafting codes allowing only 'well-founded and justifiable' claims to be made.

Under these Codes, any health-promoting claim on packaging must not be misleading and must be underpinned by sound science. Ideally evidence should show that the substance in question is absorbed or reaches its site of action. It should be clearly shown that by eating the food in normal quantities, it has a physiological beneficial function such as lowering blood pressure or that a positive effect on a biochemical marker such as cholesterol can be measured.

While functional foods potentially offer health benefits, it is important to keep these in perspective and that they are enjoyed in the knowledge not that they offer a magic bullet against health problems, but that they are a positive, health enhancing addition to an overall balanced diet and active lifestyle.

Examples of Functional Food Innovations

Food

Functional Benefit

Live fermented milks and yoghurts with probiotic culturesImprove digestive functioning.
Margarine, yoghurt, cheese spreadsPlant stereols and stanols reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease.
Eggs rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids3 - 4 eggs a week would provide the same amount of n-3 fatty acids as recommended to help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Breakfast cerealsAdded folic acid may help reduce the risk of babies being born with spina bifida.
Bread, Muesli style barsAdded isoflavones may help reduce the risk of breast and prostate cancers, heart disease and osteoporosis.


References:
1. Bellisle F, Diplock ST, Hornstra G, Koletzko B, Roberfroid M, Salminen S and Saris WHM (1998) Functional Food Science in Europe. British Journal of Nutrition 80 (Suppl. 1), S1-S193.

Aggett PJ, Ashwell M, Bornet F, Diplock AT, Fern EB and Roberfroid MB (1999) Scientific Concepts of Functional Foods in Europe: Consensus Document. British Journal of Nutrition 81 (Suppl. 1) S1-S27.