What is a functional food?

Newswise — The U.S. is the largest consumer of functional foods, it was a 44 billion dollar market in 2012 and it’s increasing with at least 60 percent of people consuming functional foods, occasionally. IFT spokesperson Cathy Adams Hutt, PhD, RD CFS explains in the following video what a functional food is and how functional foods can contribute to a nutritious diet. By definition, a functional food is a typical food that has specific nutrients added to it like vitamins and minerals, to serve a specific purpose.

What is a functional food?
A functional food is a typical food that has specific nutrients added to it, like vitamins or minerals, fiber, or probiotics or prebiotics. In general, this includes anything added for a specific functional purpose.

Do all functional foods have added nutrients?
A functional food can have both naturally occurring ingredients that are then boosted or they can have nutrients that aren’t naturally found in them. For example, orange juice has potassium and food scientists can boost this to make it more of a functional food; or you can add calcium which wouldn’t normally be found in orange juice and make it functional in a different way.

Aren’t all foods functional in one way or another?
Absolutely! All foods have certain functions and some nutritional value, but functional foods have more specific and targeted nutritional value for physiological function than others.

Are functional foods better for you than other foods?
This really depends on a person’s specific nutritional intake. Functional foods can help fulfill nutritional deficiencies; if you’re not getting enough of a nutrient, you can consume a functional food to fulfill that need.

When shopping, how can you tell if a food may be a functional food?
They aren’t specifically labeled as functional foods but are often labeled with their functional ingredient. An item that is a functional food would include a note about added nutrients on its ingredient statement; the Nutrition Fact Panel would also identify additional nutrients and their levels, as well as nutrient content claims like “good source of,” or “excellent source of,” a particular nutrient. A functional food may also have structure/function claims like if orange juice has added calcium the package may say “calcium builds strong bones.”

What does food science have to do with functional foods?
Food science enables us to make some functional foods that wouldn’t ordinarily be available. Knowing the science and chemistry of food and how ingredients interact helps us make some nutrients more readily available.

Source: IFT spokesperson Catherine Adams Hutt, PhD, RD, CFS

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About IFT
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Institute of Food Technologists. Since its founding in 1939, IFT has been committed to advancing the science of food, both today and tomorrow. Our non-profit scientific society—more than 18,000 members from more than 100 countries—brings together food scientists, technologists and related professionals from academia, government and industry. For more information, please visit ift.org.

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