Functional Foods
What are We Talking About

It is easy to get lost in all of the hype. It seems that each day we are being forced to learn a new word. It wasn't too long ago that bits and bytes (O.K. the spelling is different, but you get the idea) referred to snacks that you ate at cocktail parties. Who invented the word nerd and who turned network into a verb anyway?

The term functional food isn’t all that old either, but it may not be a term that everyone is familiar with. Scientists in their wisdom saw that there was a need for a term to describe the ever increasing number of foods that were being identified as being good for your health. Fine so far. But being scientists, it soon became popular to create a new definition, and then another and then another.. One of the longer versions appears in the document "Food Safety and Quality - Innovative Strategies may be needed to regulate new food technologies" United States General Accounting Office, Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives. GAO/RCED-93-142.

”Functional foods are products formulated with naturally occurring chemicals (or combinations of chemicals) - found in many fruits, vegetables, grains, herbs and spices - to provide a health benefit, lower the risk of certain diseases, or affect a particular body process. They go beyond correcting diseases such as pellagra and scurvy, caused by nutritional deficiencies. Functional foods are akin to novel macro ingredients in that their formulation is intended to provide a health benefit to consumers. However, functional foods are designed to lower the risk of specific diseases such as lung cancer by removing certain ingredient, by adding or combining ingredients not normally found in a food product, or by concentrating substances in higher than usual quantities.“

To be fair a shorter definition does appear elsewhere in this document which is almost too short. "Functional foods - food substances designed to lower the risk or delay the onset of certain diseases."

So while the scientists and now the bureaucrats debate about the details, we have settled on the following definition that has come out of a report prepared by Health Canada. It’s a little bit shorter and clearer than many other definitions going around. So expect in the future to see articles on foods or food ingredients in medicinal food news that fit into the definition: "A functional food is similar in appearance to conventional foods, is consumed as part of a usual diet, and has demonstrated physiological benefits and / or reduces the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions."

So now that we have settled that, pour yourself a glass of wine and pass around the bowl of bites and bytes.

Probiotics - Bacteria that are Good for Your Health

Microbiologists have studied the large number of bacteria in the intestine of humans for some time. Their first task was to count and identify the many different bacteria. This has proven to be such a big job that it is still going on. As various bacteria were identified, people started asking what these bacteria were doing in the intestine. It soon became evident that the bacteria residing in the intestines could be affected by their host and vice versa. Quickly the findings of the microbiologists started to interest others concerned about nutrition, metabolism, health.

It was British scientist, Roy Fuller who first popularized the definition of a probiotic. Fuller credits another scientists D. Lilly and R. Stillwell for actually coining the word. According to Fuller a probiotic is ‘a live microbial feed supplement which beneficially affects the host animal by improving its intestinal microbial balance’.

Fuller’s definition applied to his work with animals, but it was quickly modified and extended to include humans. The number of foods that are considered to be probiotics is not large but probiotic foods are probably more familiar to the consumer in terms of being good for your health. yogurt, kefir, and koumis are fermented milk products that have long histories. All three are considered probiotics. There are other, less well known, probiotics on the market now. Food manufacturers are researching other products that contain bacteria that could soon be on the market as probiotics.

An even faster growing trend is the sale of foods that are prebiotics. Prebiotics are foods that contain nutrients that are required by bacteria for growth and metabolism. The bacteria that live in the intestines of humans survive on the supply of partially digested food that is passing down the gastrointestinal tract. Certain bacteria require specific nutrients to grow. If the diet of the human contains those nutrients the bacteria will survive and grow; if the nutrients are not in the diet, the bacteria cannot grow. Adding or increasing specific foods or food ingredients to the diet, changes the numbers and types of bacteria in the intestines.

The largest group of prebiotics on the market right now are oligosaccharides. These complex sugars are required by certain intestinal bacteria. By including oligosaccharides in the diet, the growth of specific bacteria populations can be altered.


Vitamin B3 Deficiency Disease

Pellagra : A disease caused by a deficient diet or failure of the body to absorb niacin (one of the B complex vitamins) or an amino acid (tryptophan). Common in certain parts of the world (in people consuming large quantities of corn), the disease is characterized by scaly skin sores, diarrhea, mucosal changes, and mental symptoms (especially a schizophrenia-like dementia). It may develop after gastrointestinal diseases or alcoholism.

Signs and symptoms
Pellagra is classically described by "the four Ds": diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia and death.


Vi­t­a­min C De­fi­ciency Dis­ease

Scurvy is a disease caused by a dietary deficiency of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). The disease has occurred with regular frequency throughout human history and prehistory in populations lacking fresh foods, especially vegetables and meat. Deficiency in vitamin C may accompany wars and famine, but it is most commonly associated with post-Renaissance European EXPLORATION, particularly ocean voyages.

Scurvy can be prevented by a diet that includes certain citrus fruits such as oranges or lemons. Other sources rich in vitamin C are fruits such as blackcurrants, guava, kiwifruit, papaya, tomatoes, bell peppers, and strawberries. It can also be found in some vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, potatoes, cabbage, spinach and paprika.


Why Take Pills

The terms functional food, and nutraceutic, are often used interchangeably, but as we are trying to emphasize in medicinal food news nutraceutics are in fact a part of the larger functional food sector. The term nutraceutic has gained wide usage because it “sounds” good. You combine nutrient or nutritional and pharmaceutic and you get a term that describes foods or components of foods that appear to have drug-like action. However, the term nutraceutic more properly is applied to foods or food components that have been processed and / or concentrated into a pill, capsule or powder form. Garlic may be termed a functional food because of its reported benefits on blood cholesterol levels. Garlic pills are nutracteutics because they are being consumed in a pill form.It sounds confusing, because it is. Many people don’t see the difference and maybe it isn’t that obvious with garlic example. A vitamin E, capsule is very different from the vegetable oil it was extracted from, both in actual form it is consumed and in concentration. The vitamin E capsule should be termed a nutraceutic.

There are two sides to the nutraceutic debate. The one side argues that if a particular food or nutrient is good for you then all you have to do is eat more of that particular food to get the benefits. By eating the whole food and not just a particular component you get the benefit of what ever else is in that food at the same time. The side supporting nutraceutics points out that the benefits of many nutrients and food components only appear to be evident at high intake levels. You can’t expect anyone to consume kilograms of a vegetable each and every day. Consuming a pill or capsule high in a vitamin or mineral may be the only way to increase daily intake.

Health regulatory officials become concerned when the word drug, is used to describe any product that is being consumed. To qualify as a drug, the product has to have a proven ability to alter or enhance metabolism or prevent or reduce disease or infection or the agents that cause disease or infection. The pharmaceutical industry produces such products. But before they can market a drug there is a very strict system of proof that has to be satisfied. In most countries, health regulatory agencies are sticking to this burden of proof weather it applies to a traditional drug or to a food that has reported benefits to health in order to protect the consumer from fraudulent and dangerous product claims.

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