Just what are functional foods, anyway?

Here’s a brief primer on the health benefits that functional foods are supposed to deliver

The term ‘functional foods’ has been around for decades, but what does it mean?

“While there is no legal definition for functional foods, a common definition is that a functional food provides health benefits beyond basic nutrition,” said Ava Duering, an analyst with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

This is because they contain bioactive food compounds or physiologically active nutrients and non-nutrients. Four of the most common are protein, vitamin D, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids.

“Protein has many functions,” said Duering. “It assists with sustained energy, athletic performance and recovery; staves off loss of muscle mass associated with aging; (and) helps with weight loss and management, curbing appetite and promoting satiety.”

Along with the regular sources of protein — including meat, dairy, nuts, grains, pulses, and leafy green vegetables — is microalgae. Food manufacturers have recently starting adding it to products such as alfredo sauce, while brioche (the French pastry similar to bread) can be made with high-lipid whole algal flour instead of the usual butter and eggs.

Vitamin D, found in fish and shellfish, “helps with bone growth, modulates cell growth and has a role in neuromuscular and immune function and reduces inflammation,” said Duering.

It has been added to milk, yogurt, cheese, orange juice, breakfast cereals, and grain products.

Magnesium is naturally found in nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes.

“Magnesium works as a cofactor critical to vitamin D activity, to regulate protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose regulation and blood pressure regulation,” said Duering. “It plays a role in bone development and in the transport of calcium and potassium ions across cells which is important for nerve impulse conduction, muscle contraction, and normal heart rhythm.”

It is sometimes added to food products such as ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, supplement bars, and beverages.

Another functional food that is increasingly found in food products is omega-3 fatty acids, which are naturally found in fish oils.

“Omega-3 fatty acids benefit broadly relate to heart, brain and eye health along with supporting the nervous system and having anti-cancer properties,” said Duering.

They’re being added to products such as cereals, nutrition bars, eggs, and even beef and bacon.

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