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Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Eating Well


Functional foods are part of a healthful diet

Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, Bates County, University of Missouri Extension


Americans want to be healthy and are looking for foods that can help achieve that goal. More and more, we are purchasing foods which we understand are not only nutritious but also provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains. These foods are called “functional foods.”


You may be consuming a functional food and not know it. If you eat oatmeal to help lower cholesterol, you are eating a functional food. Fatty fish, such as salmon, and walnuts contain omega 3 fatty acids which may help lower the risk for heart disease. Fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals that may reduce the risk for prostate cancer, heart disease and macular degeneration just to name a few. Dairy foods may help protect against high blood pressure and colon cancer and may help with weight control.


Some manufacturers add herbs, vitamins and minerals to their product but that does not necessarily mean there are healthful benefits. One way to know if there is a valid health benefit is if there is a health claim on the label.


Through the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, health claims can be authorized only if there is significant scientific agreement among qualified experts regarding the claim. Generally foods that have a Food and Drug Administration approved health claim are supported by two dozen or more published clinical trials. Currently there are 14 approved health claims allowed on food labels. Some of these health claims include calcium for the reduced risk of osteoporosis, low sodium for reduced risk of high blood pressure, low dietary fat for reduced risk of cancer, low saturated fat and cholesterol for reduced risk of coronary heart disease, fiber for reduced risk of some types of cancer, fruits vegetables and grain products high in soluble fiber for decreased risk of heart disease, and sugar alcohols for reduced risk of dental caries.


One example of a functional food that might carry a health claim is margarines fortified with plant sterol and stanol esters. The health benefit is that there is evidence that consuming this product can help reduce total and LDL (bad) cholesterol. The health claim on the label may read: “Foods containing at least 0.65 gram per serving of vegetable oil sterol esters eaten twice per day with meals for a total intake of at least 1.3 grams as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.” The label would then go on to say how much of the plant sterol esters are provided by one serving of the product.


It is well-established that a healthful diet is one key to lifelong health. The best way to enjoy the benefits that functional foods can offer is to choose a wide variety of foods from the five food groups. Include whole grains, vary fruits and vegetables, and eat fish, lean meats, poultry and low-fat dairy products. These foods naturally contain the functional elements many people desire.


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Last update: Monday, January 12, 2015