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What are Functional Foods?

Updated on 27. Dec. 2018
Walnuts are considered a functional food and are a great source of omega-3s.
Walnuts are considered a functional food and are a great source of omega-3s.

There is much talk about nutrition and the effect food has on our bodies. In the 1980s the Japanese government decided to claim some foods as ‘functional foods’. Certain foods, either conventional or modified, were said to have additional health benefits beyond their basic nutrition.

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Functional foods are said to have a potentially higher positive effect on our health than other foods. They are said to promote health and even prevent disease.1 But is it too good to be true? The Academy of Nutrition and Diabetes characterizes 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."2 Hence, experts prove that functional foods can have an impact on our health if consumed alongside a balanced and healthy diet. Keep on reading and learn all about functional foods, what they are, and how you can incorporate them into your daily life.

What are functional foods?

Functional foods include many types of food:

  • Conventional foods: grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts
  • Modified Foods: yogurt, cereals, orange juice
  • Medical foods: special formulations of foods and beverages for specific health conditions
  • Special dietary foods: infant and hypoallergenic foods

All these foods are believed to provide benefits beyond basic nutrition and could play a role in preventing and reducing the risk of certain diseases and other health conditions, as the International Food Information Council Foundation reports.3 Simply by choosing the right ingredients, every one of us can have a positive impact on our health. It is all about balancing out the different foods in your diet in order to be and, most importantly, stay healthy. Simply by switching a couple of ingredients in your diet, your health will thank you. Functional foods can provide easy and cheap switches in your lifestyle as they are more common than you might think.

How to buy the right functional foods

There is no official government definition for functional foods, which makes it quite hard and confusing for the consumer to identify them. Functional foods can be used as powerful marketing tools, as the size of the health food market is very difficult to define (it is estimated to be around $18.5 billion, which is a big number and producers see the profits in there).4 Products may say that they contain functional foods, however, it is important to pay attention to the nutritional information on the back of the package. For the future, consumers should be more protected and labels should be standardized in order to create a transparent market everyone can profit from. The communication between producers and consumers could move towards a more consumer-friendly market.

Which foods are good to eat?

Cold-water fish
Sardines and salmon are packed with protein and rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These benefits can lower the risk of heart disease and improve brain function. It is recommended to eat eight ounces per week to get the right amount of nutrition and health benefits from this functional food.

Probably one of the healthiest snack foods, nuts can help to regulate the blood sugar levels. Almonds and cashews are high in magnesium while pecans and walnuts can help lower cholesterol.

Whole Grains
Oatmeal has the reputation to be healing and nutritious as it contains a lot of fiber and dense nutrients. Barley is another great source to control blood pressure. It is high in fiber and packed with nutrients. As most Americans lack fiber in their diets, these functional foods can have a great impact in their diet.5

As a functional food, beans provide a great amount of fiber and protein. When using canned beans look for those with a low sodium level. Even so, it is a good idea to rinse canned beans before using them to get rid of the extra sodium. In addition, beans provide a great amount of magnesium.

These little low-calorie treats are an amazing functional food, as their anthocyanin pigments support healthy brain function and boost cellular antioxidant defenses. In addition, they are high in vitamin C.

How to incorporate functional foods into your diet

To incorporate functional foods and be able to fuel and flourish your overall well-being it is important to be aware of what functional food is out there. As is the case for most of us, the foods listed above are generally already incorporated in our diet. However, it is also about the amount you want to consume. Make sure to have around eight ounces of fish a week, snack on a handful of nuts if you feel a little hungry, have cereals or oats for breakfast, or accompany your lunch or dinner with brown rice. Add beans to your salad or omelet and berries make a great addition to your yogurt.

There are so many options to easily include functional foods into your diet and here are some easy recipes that will make you a fan of functional foods:

Incorporate more protein and omega-3 fats into your diet with this baked salmon with lemon and basil.

Make your own oat and pine-nut granola to combine two functional foods in one. Add berries on top and be fueled for the day.

Give beans an Italian twist and make this delicious white bean salad.

Generally speaking, incorporating functional foods into your healthy diet is a good way to go. It is important to follow a balanced lifestyle in order to be healthy and avoid diseases. To fuel your body functional foods can have a great impact on your body. However, it is necessary to take a close look at the packaging as they could contain surprises on the ingredient label.


  1. Zeratsky, Katherine, R.D., L.D. "What Are Functional Foods?" Mayo Clinic - Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Mayo Clinic, n.d. Web.
  2. Denny, Sharon, MS, RDN. "Are Health Claims of Functional and Fortified Foods True?" Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, 5 July 2016. Web.
  3. "Functional Foods." (n.d.): n. pag. International Food Information Council Foundation. Web.
  4. Hasler, Clare M. "Functional Foods: Benefits, Concerns and Challenges." The Journal of Nutriton. American Society for Nutrition, 01 Dec. 2002. Web.
  5. Wani, Sajad Ahmed, Tajamul Rouf Shah, Bindu Bazaria, and Kumar Pradyuman. "Oats as a Functional Food: A Review." Research Gate., Feb. 2014. Web.
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