Increasingly, foods sold in the supermarkets come with health claims on the label. To name just a few, oatmeal and soy are said to help prevent heart disease, milk and calcium-fortified orange juice to fight osteoporosis, and folate-enriched flour to prevent birth defects. These are all “functional foods”—foods marketed as offering specific health benefits.
There are two main categories of functional foods. The first (and largest) category consists of ordinary foods that contain health-promoting substances. This category essentially includes all fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, soy and other legumes, and numerous other foods such as herbal teas, yogurt, and cold-water fish. When these foods are presented as functional foods, their specific health benefits and healthy constituents are highlighted, such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and non-nutrient chemicals with potential health benefits.1
The second category of functional foods consists of foods that have been enriched with a potentially health-promoting ingredient. Examples include margarines containing stanol esters, orange juice enriched with calcium and other nutrients, and beverages to which echinacea and other herbs have been added.
Some of these functional food products are based on good, solid science. For others, however, the supporting evidence is weak or speculative. Furthermore, the requirement for good taste sometimes forces manufacturers to limit the amount of herbs and other additives to a level so low that they are unlikely to have any effect.
In the following table, we list some of the more promising functional foods, as well as natural products that are added to food products to create functional foods.
A Note About Labeling
The FDA allows labels on foods similar to those used on dietary supplements. These do not require very much scientific validation, and they formally state that the claims made are not approved by the FDA.
In some cases, however, the FDA has specifically authorized higher level health claims such as “heart healthy.” These claims may be taken as representing scientific consensus. Because this is such a rapidly growing field, an increasing number of these labels should be expected.
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